Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Lately, first base for the Padres has been a revolving door for player after player, it seems that no one can latch onto that position for very long. Traditionally, first basemen are big guys with big power who are somewhat slow with a questionable arm, but it's a perfect place to hide a sub-par fielder from having to field another position, so long as that bat is solid. For the Padres - playing in spacious Petco where the long ball isn't as highly rated as it is in most other parks - that paradigm seems to be shifting. The player that will field the position now, seems to require a plus glove, a bat that produces some hard line drives, and youth.
Who's on first? If all goes according to plan, it will be Yonder Alonso.
A few years ago the Padres had Adrian Gonzalez anchoring first base, and what a find he was. Of course, he did grow up in the Padres backyard; born in San Diego, he attended Eastlake High School in Chula Vista. He was drafted right after high school, but the Padres couldn't have possibly taken him in that draft. Gonzalez was the first overall pick, and the Marlins swooped him up.
After three years in the Marlins organization, Gonzalez was traded to the Rangers and eventually traded to the Padres. And he got good, really good over the next few years. Too good. At the end of 2011, Gonzalez would have been a free agent. He would have commanded over one-third of the entire team payroll. The Padres had to trade him or risk getting only a draft pick in return when he left.
In December of 2010, Gonzalez went to the Red Sox, who subsequently signed him to a contract that, beginning in 2012, will pay Gonzalez $21 million per season until 2018. In return the Padres received two minor league outfielders, a highly regarded pitching prospect in Casey Kelly, and a good first base prospect named Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo, who also has a plus glove and projects for power, began 2011 in AAA Tucson, tabbed as the Padres first baseman of the future. Meanwhile, the Padres signed free agent Brad Hawpe to play first base with the big club.
Hawpe had some pretty good years with the Rockies previously, hitting for above-average power and driving in his share of runs. In 2010, Hawpe had a down year, slowed by injuries. The Rockies released Hawpe in August of 2010, and he went to Tampa Bay for a few at-bats. He became a free agent at the end of 2010 and the Padres took a shot with him.
It was a disaster. Hawpe had always played almost exclusively in the outfield, and it showed. He only had 4 errors in 2011, but his inability to dig out throws and other fundamental flaws at the position was glaring. And worse, he appeared lost at the plate. Hawpe would become injured in mid-June and his season would end with a .231 batting average. Hawpe's option would not be picked up at the end of 2011 by the Padres.
Jorge Cantu was a very useful player with some power and the proven ability to play first and third base, but his production had recently fallen off. The Padres signed him cheaply at the beginning of the 2011 season both as insurance in case of injury to Hawpe and as a pinch hitter. Cantu was released at the same time that Hawpe was injured, he posted a .194 average for the season. He was not the answer for first base.
Meanwhile, Rizzo was tearing it up in the minors. He had an average that often flirted with .400, hit home runs and doubles regularly, and was driving in a lot of runs. And his glove was better than expected. Rizzo got the call-up. His first hit was a triple. The future looked bright.
Hopes then faded quickly. After only a few games, the strike outs began to add up rapidly. Rizzo's swing was loping, too long to adjust to the changes of speed that pitchers throw in the big leagues. By mid-July, it appeared that Rizzo's bat wasn't Major League ready. Rizzo was sent back down to AAA Tucson to work on his swing.
When Cantu was released and Hawpe was injured and his return was doubtful, it opened up a roster spot that was filled by Jesus Guzman. Guzman had toiled in the minors for a few years, eventually signing with the Giants organization. His bat wasn't ever much of a question. It was his glove. In AAA Tucson, after the Padres picked him up for organizational depth when the Giants didn't resign him after 2010, Guzman was hitting well, almost as well as Rizzo. They stuck him at third base in the minors, where his suspect glove was exposed.
The Padres gave Guzman some chances to play first base to give Rizzo the occasional day off. Unlike Rizzo, Guzman responded well and his glove at 1st base wasn't as bad of a liability as it would have been at third base. Guzman finished the year hitting a team-leading .312 with 44 runs batted in. That's a very nice few months.
Aside from having a substandard glove, there's only one problem with Guzman at first base. He's going to be 28 in June. With only a few months of Major League experience under his belt, there is still plenty to learn at that level. That makes it difficult to see him as the first baseman of the future.
The Padres got a great haul from the Cincinnati Reds when they traded Mat Latos. One of the pieces they received in return is a young Cuban-born left-handed hitting first baseman named Yonder Alonso. That trade made Anthony Rizzo a moveable piece for the right price. Rizzo was then traded to the Cubs for pitcher Andrew Cashner. In Alonso, they have youth, line drives, and a plus glove. He will be 25 in April.
Yonder Alonso came with his parents from Cuba to the United States when he was 10 years old. As his father had been involved with baseball in Cuba, it was natural that Yonder became an outstanding ball player in high school at Coral Gables, Florida. After his senior year, the Minnesota Twins drafted Alonso as a catcher in the 16th round of the 2005 draft, but he instead chose to attend the University of Miami.
At Miami, Alonso excelled and led the Hurricanes to the College World Series in Omaha his freshman year, leading the team in home runs and RBI's. After his junior year, Alonso was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds as the 7th overall pick. He signed. Negotiations with the Reds went right up to the deadline.
Alonso can hit. He's patient, he runs counts deep, he waits for a pitch in the zone. He also walks a lot. When he gets a pitch to hit, he can spray the ball all over the park, which plays well for Petco where the defense is forced to spread wide in the outfield because of the size of the park. There isn't a lot of movement in the hips, which might be one reason you aren't likely to see 30 home runs out of him anytime soon. But the advantage is that it shortens the swing, which allows the batter to go deep into the count and be able to sit back and still catch up with fast balls.
Is there a downside? Sure, Alonso could be faster. And as a left-handed hitter he's still learning how to hit left-handed pitching. That could be an issue for a while. Of course, the Padres do have an excellent right-handed hitter in Jesus Guzman to spell Alonso against left-handed opposing pitching in the meanwhile. It will be interesting to see how Padres manager Bud Black plays them.
Regardless, now you have a better idea of who's on first.
According to Tom Krasovic of insidethepadres.com, Tony Gwynn - 10 days out of successful surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his cheek - agreed in principal to a new contract that would restore him to the booth in some television broadcasts. Gwynn stated that he wasn't certain of exactly when he would be able to return in that capacity, but very much looks forward to it. Judging from listening to his recent radio interview on XX1090 AM, that looks sooner rather than later. So far, it's an amazing recovery.
Reports from camp in Peoria have a lot of very eager baseball players who are happy to be back to work. Batting practice and base running seemed to be the activities the position players most enjoyed, according to their online chatter. Pitchers, meanwhile, continue to stretch out. Next week, some will pitch to batters, which will benefit both. Thus will begin the instructional portion of spring training, where the coaches and instructors will be every bit as busy as the players in camp.
(Pictured: Yonder Alonso)