Even by the travel standards for an ambitious young baseball player, this seemed excessive: a predraft workout organized by the Orioles on Mother’s Day in which Darell Hernaiz and his family would have to drive more than nine hours — from El Paso, Texas, to Dallas and back — in barely over 36 hours.
When the Orioles selected Hernaiz, the young shortstop, with the first pick in last year’s fifth round, it made it all worth it. But nothing about that selection — from the spring that put Hernaiz on the map, to those predraft workouts and the excitement they bring to prospects and their families, to the value the players bring to organizations as they look to invest in their next generation of talent — can be replicated this year. Major League Baseball shortened the draft to five rounds as it works to start its season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s one of the fun parts about the draft, kind of a romantic part about the draft, is stories like that,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said. “Our predraft workouts, which we’re not having this year, they have historically been such a huge part of our process for reasons like that.
“He came a long way. He impressed everyone at the workout in Dallas with his personality and also his skills. He had an opportunity to hit on some of our technology and testing, use a Blast Motion bat sensor, and overall it was just a great thing.”
For Hernaiz, who was born in Puerto Rico and lived there until he was 9, simply being eligible for last year’s draft was good fortune. Born in August, he was able to enroll early in school and was a 17-year-old senior in 2019. He was a Texas Tech commit at Americas High School in El Paso who did some of the typical prep showcases, but really came onto the draft scene in his senior year.
Orioles area scout John Gillette, who was let go in the club’s culling of its scouting and player development staff last summer, initially noticed Hernaiz and facilitated him coming to the workout for the team.
When the predraft workout invitations started coming, the Orioles’ was the first — and the easiest to accept.
“I felt like that was an important one that we could make because it was driving distance, so I talked about it with my mom and she was like, ‘Yea, for sure, I’ll do it,’” Hernaiz said.
His mother, Edna Gonzalez, was assenting to a trip that pushed 1,300 miles, roundtrip, in one weekend. It was nothing new for them.
Their drives to weekend baseball games in their Nissan Armada, since Hernaiz’s high school career began, had been the same: his music, and discussion of their shared aspirations.
“We’d talk about that for hours, kind of like dreaming together — what I wanted to accomplish,” Hernaiz said. “She was just always there for me, dreaming with me about when stuff would happen.”
One day they were driving to a game and talking about how crazy it would be to play college baseball. When he committed to play at Texas Tech, they marveled at how far they’d come. They initially thought that he might be drafted out of college, but things started changing quickly. They couldn’t contain their excitement on the trip across Texas.
“We as a family always dreamed about that, and always support him in everything that we can,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said that she had a good feeling about the trip the whole time, and though the goals had changed, the conversation remained the same.
“I was pretty excited,” Hernaiz said. “We were all talking about it and I was just hoping that I could show them what I could do.”
They left that Saturday and arrived in Dallas by 9 p.m. so that Hernaiz could be rested for the workout the next day. After a hotel Mother’s Day breakfast, Hernaiz and around a dozen other prospects convened at a high school field for an audience that included Elias, assistant general manager Sig Mejdal, supervisor of domestic scouting operations Brad Ciolek and a group of Orioles scouts.
Hernaiz remembers that he did pretty well in the workout, specifically the amount of home runs he hit.
His mother told him that it was the best Mother’s Day gift she could ever get, and the best trip along with it.
“You looked like Javy Baez or Francisco Lindor that day,” she said, referring to the current MLB stars.
When they left back for El Paso, they made it home in time for Hernaiz to get three hours of sleep before school on Monday. He left quite an impression on the Orioles’ brass as well — one person told him that he’d make a lot of money playing baseball one day — and that’s why the club values the workouts so much.
Ciolek said that it was one of four held last year in Baltimore, Florida, Texas and California, with around 60 players total showing their skills for Orioles brass. Right-hander Shelton Perkins and third baseman Toby Welk were drafted after participating in the Baltimore workout.
In Hernaiz’s case, the first-hand look was vital to see “how everything fires, how everything works,” Ciolek said.
“That’s really important,” Ciolek said. “You can get some sense of that on video, but also the ability to talk to him on a human level and kind of pick his brain, see what makes him tick. Darell is a baseball rat. He loves every minute of it, he’s breaking down swings, he’s watching video, and we really just felt that for a kid his age who was mature beyond his years, and he was ready for the pro ball environment and ultimately, obviously he performed really well in our workout.
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"He hit a few balls out in BP, showed good hands in the dirt, and showcased his ability to move left and right and make some strong throws across the diamond. But ultimately, we essentially get the opportunity to see how these kids are wired.”
What they found made the Orioles comfortable using their fifth-round pick on Hernaiz, which came with a $400,000 bonus and the chance to be part of the heralded 2019 draft class. He played in the Gulf Coast League on manager Alan Mills’ division-winning team and was part of the Orioles’ early spring training camp for priority minor leaguers.
In an organization that’s thin on up-the-middle infield talent, Hernaiz’s potential makes him a unique addition to the farm system. The Orioles lament the fact that there were no breakout high school seniors to get a closer look at this year, and no workouts to help solidify their conviction about picks like Hernaiz in the abbreviated five-round draft to come.
For the Hernaiz family, though, everything worked out. Had he been age-appropriate for his grade, he’d be in this year’s draft class, which hasn’t enjoyed the traditional scouting process with college and high school seasons shortened by the pandemic. A prospect like him wouldn’t have had a chance to play himself into the fifth round, and there are only five rounds as it is.
But for a family that has always dreamt together, the drive that took them across Texas for baseball one last time proved particularly worthwhile.