Kiké Hernandez’s play may come with future Red Sox dilemma

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BOSTON — This American League Championship Series, alternatively known as the Yankees Nightmare Series (YNS), compels a troublemaking New York hack like yours truly to act as detective.

What do the Astros and Red Sox, tied at 1-1 heading into Monday night’s Game 3 at Fenway Park and both vying for their third AL pennant since the Yankees’ last World Series appearance in 2009, do right that the Yankees do wrong?

I’m working on it — it’s a big case — although I have solved one mini-mystery: You know who Kiké Hernandez is for these Red Sox? He’s the 2019 Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu.

He’s the sort of proven veteran on whom you want to buy relatively low. Whether he’s the guy you want to then reward for excelling on such terms, well, the Red Sox have one more year before they must worry about it. The Yankees, on the other hand, are one year into worrying about it.

Hernandez, if you stopped watching the playoffs after the Yankees lost the AL wild-card game to their historic rivals at Fenway, is enjoying an October for the ages. The former Dodger will bring an otherworldly .500/.514/1.094 slash line, with five homers in 32 at-bats not to mention great center field defense, into Game 3. No wonder The Boston Globe’s legendary columnist Dan Shaughnessy currently refers to him as The Greatest Player in the History of Baseball.

Kiké Hernandez
Kiké Hernandez celebrated one of his homer in the ALCS.
AP

“He obviously loves the big moments, and now he has a lot of playoff experience coming into this thing,” Bosox reliever and former Yankee Adam Ottavino said Sunday, as the team held an optional workout. “So he has been a leader for us. You’re always surprised when somebody is this hot, but at the same time I’ve been appreciating his game more and more over the years, and this year he has taken it to another level for sure.”

“I’m having a lot of fun. It’s a blast. It’s October, and these games tend to be a lot of fun,” Hernandez said Friday night, following the Red Sox’s loss in Game 1.

Hernandez posted a modest .250/.337/.449 slash line in 134 regular-season games, although his elite defense at center field enabled him to tie shortstop Xander Bogaerts for the team lead at 4.9 wins above replacement, as per Baseball-Reference.com. His extensive postseason experience, having played in 58 October games with the Dodgers from 2015-20, clearly enhances his comfort level in the spotlight.

If LeMahieu didn’t clock anywhere as many reps as a Rockie before joining the Yankees, playing in two wild-card games (2017 and 2018) and one National League Division Series (’18), he certainly entered the Yankees’ universe with an unshakeable vibe that served him well. His experience parallels Hernandez’s in three ways:

The terms of the contract. The Red Sox signed Hernandez, entering his age-29 season, to a two-year, $14-million deal in February. The Yankees paid LeMahieu, entering his age-30 season, $24 million over two years in January of ’19. They represented interesting investments rather than generational commitments.

The versatility. Hernandez played 47 games at second base and eight at shortstop this season, helping the Red Sox considerably. LeMahieu, as you know, has popped from his main gig at second base to first and third without complaint.

Red Sox
Kiké Hernandez
USA Today Sports

The personality. No, these are not two peas in the pod, Hernandez the Penn to LeMahieu’s Teller. What they share, though, is a popularity among their teammates.

The Yankees loved LeMahieu so much from their two-year relationship that they got hitched long term, $90 million over six years, and boy was Year 1 rough, LeMahieu dropping from an elite hitter to an average one and a sports hernia keeping him out of the wild-card game. For all the fair criticisms of these ’21 Yankees, they might very well still be playing right now if LeMahieu looked more like his ’19/’20 self this season.

LeMahieu drove the ’19 Yankees to ALCS Game 6 before falling to the Astros. Can Hernandez push the Red Sox farther, give the Red Sox more bang for fewer bucks?

In the meantime, the Yankees, with no games to play, should try to solve a mystery of their own: Which other team’s available veteran can be their 2022 version of Past DJ or Present Kiké?

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