Pirates' prospect Hernandez showing flashes

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ALTOONA -- Those quick flashes -- both applause-forcing good and perhaps self-destructively bad -- define the baseball life of Gorkys Hernandez, a 21-year-old outfield prospect viewed as one of the pillars of the Pirates' future.

It was hard not to be drawn to those positive flashes Thursday in Altoona, where Hernandez was playing in his 37th game for the Class AA Curve since being acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Nate McLouth deal June 3.

There was that flash when Hernandez hit a one-hop screamer back at the Harrisburg pitcher, who, in self-defense, had just enough time to get his glove up and deflect the baseball a step toward third base. And there was that flash, in the form of Hernandez, darting at full-bore down the line to barely beat out the bang-bang play for an infield single.

A few innings later, another flash came, this time on defense.

On what looked like a sure gap shot, Hernandez got a tremendous jump from his center field position, broke back and to his left and caught the would-be extra-base hit in stride just steps from the warning track.

His complex moves looked effortless.

"Gorkys has those first three steps, and he has closing speed," Altoona manager Matt Walbeck said. "He plays more shallow than probably any outfielder I've seen and dares them to hit it over his head."

On both plays, all eyes turned to Hernandez, who was a high-end prospect with Detroit and Atlanta before joining the Pirates.

At a road game June 24 in Erie, all eyes also shifted to the Venezuelan -- but that time it was for a flash of immaturity, something that has been a knock on him.

That night, just after striking out looking on a borderline pitch in the third inning, Hernandez argued with the home plate umpire.

Hernandez had his say, remained in the game, but walked -- slowly and deliberately in a show of disdain -- out to his position after the argument.

Then, the flash point came.

When a teammate threw him a ball for the between-innings warm-up session, Hernandez caught it and, rather than participate in the game of catch, promptly turned and threw it over the center field wall.

Walbeck immediately sent a substitute to center, summoning Hernandez to the bench.

"Had to do it," the Altoona manager explained. "His head was gone; he absolutely lost it."

Asked last week if he understands that, at times, his temper can be his own worst enemy -- and citing the incident in Erie as fodder -- Hernandez, usually quick with smile, turned serious and even a touch humiliated.

"I can't do things like that anymore, I know," he said with a contrite, uncomfortable demeanor, his eyes dropping to look at the floor, his head shaking side to side. "I'm young, but I can't do that anymore."

Hernandez, who through Sunday hit .250 with 38 hits and 14 runs in his first 40 games in Altoona while playing brilliant defense, knows the top brass in Pittsburgh is paying attention and dissecting all of it, positive and negative.

While obviously not pleased with his selfish, sulking display in Erie, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington refused to malign Hernandez, who also was yanked from a game earlier this month for failing to run out a popup.

"Ultimately, I've done things at 20 or 21 that I wouldn't have done if I were 24, 25 or 30," Huntington said. "I think, in any profession, that's the case. That is what we have with Gorkys and, in him, we don't have a bad guy running around the clubhouse, but someone we are working with in terms of a constant maturation."

A maturation if brought wholly to fruition, and the negative flashes disappear, could reveal a player cut from the same cloth as former Pirates outfielder Nyjer Morgan, a speedster who can hit in the top two spots of the lineup and play multiple outfield positions.

Sounds great, right?

Well, Hernandez, while not totally ruling it out, isn't thrilled with the idea of having to potentially move out of center.

"If the team said, 'Can you play a corner?' I would say, 'OK,' but I don't want to, I am a center fielder," he said.

Then he was told that Andrew McCutchen has been having a solid rookie year for the Pirates since being called up to fill the vacancy left when McLouth was traded and McCutchen -- at just 22 -- could be playing center field in Pittsburgh for a long time.

Hernandez's face grew very serious again.

This time, his answer was a bit stunning, lacking zero self-assurance.

"Then it will be good competition when I get to the big leagues," he said. "[McCutchen] is fast, he can hit, he can play center field, but so can I. It will be a good competition."

Or will it?

Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark offered a qualifier of sorts, citing PNC Park's expansive left-center field, explaining that the Pirates are in a unique position defensively when it comes to left field.

"Gorkys is a center fielder, yes," Stark said. "As we look at it, the reality is that, in the ballpark we play in, we need two center fielders, one playing left and one in center, at the major league level."

There is no timetable on Hernandez's organizational progression.

"I want to be in Pittsburgh this year, I want to finish [the] season there this year," Hernandez said. "If not, I'll be ready when they call me. I know I can play in the big leagues now.

"Just pay attention to me and you can see what I can do."

Even without him urging you to do so, it is hard not to pay attention to Hernandez.

And all of the action -- good and bad -- comes in those brilliant flashes.

Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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