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Teoscar Hernández: ‘I don’t think there’s a better place than the Dodgers right now’

Los Angeles Dodgers v. Seattle Mariners Photo by Liv Lyons/MLB Photos via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The free agent market for Teoscar Hernández took a little longer than he anticipated to materialize. But in the end he opted for a one-year deal with the Dodgers, with Los Angeles becoming a destination spot.

“I had more choices, but I think that wasn’t the best for me and my family,” Hernández said Tuesday. “I’d rather take one year with the Dodgers, and go to a team that makes me better.”

Making players better is a growing reputation regarding the Dodgers, though the sentiment usually comes from pitchers. Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney improved in their one-year with the Dodgers in 2022, then parlayed that into multi-year contracts elsewhere. Noah Syndergaard is on the other end of the scale, saying after signing a one-year deal with the Dodgers, “I feel like everything they touch turns to gold,” but then walked the plank after turning to pyrite in 2023.

Evan Phillips wasn’t a free agent, but he has become one of the game’s best relief pitchers since joining the Dodgers on a waiver claim in August 2021. On the hitting side, much of the Dodgers most recent success was experienced with lineup regulars Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, and Max Muncy, all of whom rebuilt their careers after joining Los Angeles in unheralded transactions.

Jason Heyward overcame two dreadful years with the Cubs with a solid Dodgers season in a platoon role, then re-upped for another year. On the flip side, David Peralta’s one-year deal, in a similar role, didn’t work out as well, depending on how one measures vibes.

Perhaps the best direct comp for Hernández is J.D. Martinez essentially the player he’s replacing in the lineup though Martinez is a designated hitter and Hernández will play the corner outfield. Like Martinez, Hernández was brought on board to be a tremendous power threat from the right side on a one-year contract. Things worked swimmingly for Martinez, who doubled his home run total from the year before.

Without knowing the actual success rate of the Dodgers’ success rate in improving players’ prospects, the perception is real, and if it helps LA attract players, all the better for them.

“It’s something we take a lot of pride in. I feel like our hitting group [of coaches], we think they’re as good as it gets,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said via Zoom on Tuesday. “Having that opportunity to make really good players even better or make minor tweaks to keep guys within bumper lanes to stay more consistent, that’s something we really value.”

A way of improvement for Hernández might be as simple as changing his home park. He hit just .217/.263/.380 with an 81 wRC+ at T-Mobile Park in Seattle in his one season with the Mariners, compared to .295/.344/.486 with a 126 wRC+ on the road.

“Everything comes down to confidence at home plate,” Hernández said. “If you watched my numbers, there was a big gap between playing at home [in Seattle] and playing away. It was more getting confidence at home, trying to do the same things I did when playing on the road.”

Right-handed batters across MLB hit just .221/.292/.360 at T-Mobile Park in 2023, compared to .256/.316/.419 in Mariners road games.

In the last three years, right-handers had a .692 OPS in Seattle compared to .751 in Mariners road games. Over the same span, right-handed batters at Dodger Stadium had a .726 OPS compared to .704 in Dodgers road games.

“Seattle is a tough place to hit for right-handed hitters. I think it’s been that way for a while,” Gomes said. “We feel like the power, and the ability to really handle left-handed pitching was an exceptional fit for how our lineup is constructed.”

However manager Dave Roberts makes out his lineup, he’ll have Hernández in it. As if it wasn’t obvious in signing for $23.5 million over one year, Hernández will be an everyday player, as he has been for the last four seasons. Gomes said as much Tuesday.

“I consider myself an everyday player,” Hernández said. “But at the same time, I’m going to be available for any decision they’re going to make.”

Hernández figures to see time in both left field and right field, as the team mixes and matches. The Dodgers have left-handed batters Heyward and James Outman in the outfield, plus right-handers Hernández, Manuel Margot, and Chris Taylor. Mookie Betts will be the regular second baseman, with Gomes noting the signing of Hernández making it less likely Betts will see time in the outfield, as was expected.

“These are things we’ll talk through as everyone gets settled, but it could be that Teo goes to right on the days Jason is not playing, and we’ll have some combination of Margot and CT elsewhere,” Gomes said. “We have different options, which is really helpful.”

Hernández had different options as well, in his one-year deal with the Dodgers. It’s a $23.5 million contract, of which he’ll be paid $15 million in 2024. The other $8.5 million is spread evenly from 2030-39, a smaller-scale version of the large deferrals in the contracts of Shohei Ohtani, Betts, and Freddie Freeman.

“Everyone knows the Dodgers are a little over the luxury tax,” Hernández said in the understatement of the year, as LA’s estimated payroll for competitive balance tax is roughly $300 million, over the fourth (and highest) threshold, with every new addition in 2024 coming with a 110-percent tax.

“That was one of the options they gave me. They put it in my hands, and I decided to take it like that.”

The deferrals lower Hernández’s deal to $20.43 million for competitive balance tax purposes when it comes to counting up the payroll. In an offseason in which the Dodgers have committed over $1.2 billion in future contracts, the money is definitely the largest factor, without question.

But like in the case of Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, both of whom had similar offers elsewhere before signing record-setting contracts with Los Angeles, there’s more to it than just money. Like the track record the current Dodgers have built, making them a destination many players flock to.

“When you go into an organization that it doesn’t matter how much they have to spend to make their team better, their organization better, that’s what you want to hear as a player,” Hernández said. “They’re hungry for winning, and I’m hungry for winning. I don’t think there’s a better place than the Dodgers right now.”