Kiké Hernández ready for whatever Dodgers need after trade

Aaron Bates has seen almost every variation of Kiké Hernández’s swing.

They first crossed paths in the Puerto Rican winter league in 2010, when Bates was trying to prolong his pro career while an 18-year-old Hernández was just beginning his.

They were reunited as player and coach with the Dodgers nearly a decade later, when Bates was promoted to the club’s hitting staff in 2019 during Hernández’s first stint in Los Angeles.

And even after Hernández left the Dodgers three years ago to sign with the Boston Red Sox, Bates stayed in contact with the utility man from afar, cheering his success during the 2021 postseason and wondering what had gone wrong for the veteran ever since.

“Stuff can snowball,” Bates said. “A fresh start can kind of help relax the mind a little bit.”

This week, that’s exactly what Hernández is getting.

On Tuesday, the Dodgers reacquired Hernández in a trade with the Red Sox, bringing back the 31-year-old despite him being mired in his worst season.

A key factor in the acquisition: Bates and fellow hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, who also worked with Hernández during his final two Dodgers seasons in 2019 and 2020, took a closer look at his swing, noticed it was “way different” than where it had been during his best years, and felt confident they could make quick adjustments to fix it.

“It’s easy if you have a history with the guy, or you know his personality and have a relationship with him,” Bates said of making in-season adjustments with trade-deadline arrivals like Hernández. “It’s not easy to hit, ever. But as far as getting the adjustments across and expediting the situation,” the familiarity is beneficial.

The Dodgers can only hope so.

While Hernández’s return was celebrated by the fan base Tuesday, his ability to positively impact this team remains a question, after he batted just .222 with a career-low .599 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the Red Sox this season.

First and foremost, Hernández will have to adjust to the kind of part-time platoon role that partially led to his departure, when the first-time free agent signed with Boston in search of more playing time.

“When we had him the first time [he had] a strong desire to be an everyday player,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I don’t fault him for it. That’s what you want from all your guys.”

“But,” Roberts added, “I just kind of talked to him about my expectations of the role [this season]. He’s a very intelligent person so he knows what kind of team we have here. I think he understands how he fits in with our group.”

While speaking to reporters Wednesday morning for the first time since the trade, Hernández said he was on board.

“For now I’m going to play against lefties. I’m gonna be moving around [defensively],” he said. “With the season that I was having, I’m not in any position to be asking for playing time or anything like that.”

Hernández also is walking into a different environment than the one he left behind three years ago. Where the clubhouse once revolved around veteran Justin Turner (whom Hernández helped recruit to Boston this past offseason), this team has been led by superstars Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts, and even new veterans like Jason Heyward and J.D. Martinez.

“He has a strong personality [but] we didn’t acquire him for his personality,” Roberts said of Hernández, noting he is “excited to see him blend in with this ballclub.”

“It’s a very unselfish group, team-first oriented,” Roberts added. “And I think that Kiké can definitely help.”

Where the Dodgers need Hernández most, though, is against left-handed pitching — a former strength for the right-handed hitter that this season suddenly turned into a weakness, with Hernández posting just a .652 OPS in such plate appearances.

“Talking with our hitting group, they see some levers to pull to be able to get him back capable of his true talent level versus lefties and what he’s been his whole career,” general manager Brandon Gomes said.

That’s where the familiarity with the club, and coaches like Bates and Van Scoyoc in particular, could be crucial.

“You won’t have to tip-toe around as much,” Bates said. “I’ve known him for a long time. He’s got enough history here. He wouldn’t expect us to tip-toe around. He’ll ask for help. It’s a different situation than with a brand new player.”

While Hernández and the hitting staff had time for only a brief conversation before Wednesday afternoon’s series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays — in which Hernández started at second base after arriving late Tuesday night — Bates said they’ve already identified ways to help him rediscover his old swing and drive the ball more consistently.

“I haven’t lost confidence that I can still be the player that I was,” Hernández said. “I have confidence that with Bates and RVS, we’re gonna get together and figure out how to get back on track.”

If it all works, Hernández could be exactly what the Dodgers need: A right-handed bat capable of lengthening the bench. A versatile defensive option capable of filling multiple roles for a platoon-heavy team.

“He’s a Swiss army knife,” Roberts said. “I still stand by, he’s one of the most talented baseball players I’ve been around.”

Only time will tell whether a return to the Dodgers can draw that potential out of Hernández again.

“I knew it was a possibility I would get traded. I knew there was a couple of teams interested,” he said. “But this kind of happened last minute. And I’m glad I was [traded] here.”