Two years ago, the big news of the offseason was the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Boston Red Sox. Coming off a 90-win season in which the Padres missed the playoffs by one game, everyone wondered if the team would regroup and go for it again–or play the averages and move their high-leverage superstar before it was too late. Then general manager Jed Hoyer chose the latter, sending Adrian off to the AL East in return for Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, and Reymond Fuentes (and Eric Patterson but let’s forget about him). Rizzo was the heir to the first base throne, but he was only 21-years-old and still had some seasoning to buy him time. Hoyer went out and assembled a hybrid first baseman out of Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu. I don’t think I need to tell you that this plan went terribly. By late June, Hawpe was on the DL and Cantu was cut loose. This opened the way for Rizzo, who got off to a hot start hitting a triple in his first game and a home run in his third. That’s pretty much where the excitement ended, as Rizzo fell into a huge slump, eventually losing the starting job to Jesus Guzman, a 27-year-old minor league journeyman who jumped at the opportunity he was given. By the end of the year, Guzman was the team’s most productive hitter, despite having only the ninth most plate appearances on the team.
Heading into 2012 it looked like a battle was brewing between Rizzo and Guzman. Guzman had won the job on the field but Rizzo was the future and there wasn’t much for him to take away from another season in Tucson. As it turned out, new general manager Josh Byrnes had another idea. He brought in Yonder Alonso from the Reds. Just as Rizzo’s pedigree had been written by the size of the name he had been acquired for, Alonso’s status at the top of the food chain was strengthened by Mat Latos‘ corresponding move to Cincinnati. With a “QB controversy” brewing, Rizzo was shipped to the north side of Chicago and Alonso’s face was plastered all over Petco Park and other promotional materials. He’s the starter, with Guzman as his trusty number two.
Back when the two were coexisting Padres, a lot was made of the differing styles of Rizzo and Alonso. Rizzo was something of an all-or-nothing player, the kind who hits 30 home runs in a season while striking out 200 times, while Alonso is a doubles hitter who prefers to use the whole field. Given Petco Park’s ridiculous and worst in the majors left-handed home run split, the ballpark made the decision on whom to keep pretty easy. Even before the trade, the projections all pegged Alonso’s home run total in the teens. Names like Mark Grace and Wally Joyner were bandied about as comps for Alonso. You’ll remember Joyner as the bald-headed first baseman who contributed +10 WAR to the team during the heyday of the late-90s. And before his time in San Diego, Joyner was a heralded rookie for the California Angels, starting in the 1986 All-Star Game and coming in second to Jose Canseco in that year’s Rookie of the year voting. All-in-all, not a horrible path for Alonso to follow.
For his part, Alonso has promised an approach that will fit inside of the stadium, saying:
“I am not thinking 40 or 50 home runs when I’m thinking about hitting,” Alonso said earlier this week at Petco Park.
“A lot of left-handed hitters and first basemen are thinking home runs,” Alonso continued. “That’s not the type of left-handed hitter I am.
“When I look at Petco Park, I don’t see how far away the fences are. I see a lot of grass. I feel like this ballpark likes the kind of hitter I am.”
Yonder not as important as hits to Alonso (what a headline)
Sounds good, right? Alonso’s not coming here as some dragon slayer but rather as just a man, a man with limitations like anyone else. (Melvin’s note: Dovahkiin!) The fences are too far out? Then F em, I’ll do my work inside the lines. Except, that’s a lot easier said than done. As a minor leaguer, Alonso had a .325 BABIP, which is a bit higher than the .281 mark that the Padres have averaged at Petco since its inception in 2004. The problem with Petco isn’t that it kills home runs, it’s that it kills everything that comes off the bat. Here’s how Petco’s splits breakdown for left-handed batters in some key categories:
*That’s including triples, which I don’t think the 240 lb. Alonso will be hitting many of. Take out the three-baggers and the park factor drops to 81.
**The lower the number, the more difficult it is for hitters, with 100 as Major League average
It’s good that Alonso seems to be coming in with the right mindset because Petco is a mental monster that has left other top-rated prospects in its wake. The big question will be whether or not Alonso has the mental fortitude to power through if the hits aren’t dropping like he’s used to come Memorial Day.
Earlier, I mentioned that Grace and Joyner have been two names thrown out as comps for Alonso but those two are on one end of the spectrum. On the other, we have the likes of James Loney and Lyle Overbay, two other modest hitters who proved to be a little too modest. There are a handful of +2 WAR seasons between the two of them but it can’t be said that either truly delivered on the potential that they showed as top prospects.
With his likeness now welcoming fans to the park, it seems safe to say that the team will give Alonso every opportunity to prove himself as a major leaguer. Especially since he’ll also be proving that Josh Byrnes made the right call when he shipped away both Mat Latos and Anthony Rizzo to make room for him.