More Alexei, Less Alexi
By Hugh Rothman
By Hugh Rothman
The Padres catching situation stands as follows: Derek Norris will be the starter, backed up by Austin Hedges and/or newly acquired Christian Bethancourt. Norris and Hedges manned the position last season too, taking over for Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera in 2014.
In 2014, the Padres were below average (and sometimes waaaay below average) at every position… except catcher. That was the one shining positional beacon in the stinking sewage that passed for an offense that year. Grandal and Rivera combined for a 4.4 WAR (wins above replacement) in 2014 so they clearly were not the problem. However, it was decided by general manager A.J. Preller that both players needed to be sacrificed in order to improve the rest of the offense in 2015. Grandal helped net the Padres Matt Kemp from the LA Dodgers, and Rivera was a minor piece in helping the Padres acquire Wil Myers from the Tampa Rays. The Padres also acquired their new starting catcher Derek Norris from the Oakland A’s for injury-prone 3rd starter Jesse Hahn. After all the wheeling and dealing, the Padres somehow managed to hold on to one of their top prospects in Austin Hedges, and he eventually became the backup.
The end result: Norris and Hedges combined for a 2.3 WAR in 2015. That’s still not bad. The problem is that 2.5 WAR came from Norris, and -0.2 WAR came from Hedges. In other words, the Padres would benefit from a better backup catcher, but resolving that issue isn’t so easy.
Why? Because Austin Hedges is an amazing catcher. He was a 2nd round pick and immediately showed an otherworldly aptitude for the catching position. Pitchers adore throwing to him. His arm is so strong (chorus: how strong is it?), he can throw a pea through a battleship if so desired. There are lots of glowing defensive stats about Hedges, but it would be easiest to look at just one overall defensive measurement, DRS (defensive runs saved). Hedges had a DRS of 6 despite being the backup. If he had played the whole season, his DRS would be 21 (per Baseball-Reference.com), which is pretty unreal. The starter Derek Norris had a decent year defensively, with a DRS of 3, which is still above average. Hedges’ mark of 6 in less than a third of the playing time that Norris got is a testament to his stupendous defensive prowess.
Unfortunately, Hedges can’t hit.
He couldn’t hit in double-A. He couldn’t hit in triple-A. He really, really can’t hit in the majors. Whatever defensive benefits he brings to the table he more than gives back with his hitting: .168/.215/.248 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) in 137 at bats is simply terrible and the kind of production that cannot be tolerated by any self-respecting baseball franchise. Hedges is only 23 years old, so maybe there is some growth potential, but he is very far away from being even remotely productive as a hitter. Perhaps this is the reason that former Atlanta Braves prospect Christian Bethancourt was acquired.
Bethancourt, a former top-10 prospect of the Braves, is himself a youngster at age 24. His defense isn’t as good as Hedges (whose is?); his DRS last season was very close to 0, meaning he is about average defensively. His hitting is a tiny bit better than Hedges’ (he hit .200/.225/.290 last season in 155 at bats). However, that’s certainly not very impressive. Bethancourt showed a bit more hitting acumen in the minors than Hedges, but not much more. In short, Bethancourt is not much of an upgrade offensively, and a significant downgrade defensively. The Padres are clearly hoping that at least one of them takes a big step forward offensively this season whether in triple-A or the majors, and they are probably hoping that it is Hedges who is the one who takes that step, because that would give them a catcher who can win games with his defense alone – if only his hitting was just moderately acceptable.
In the meantime, the starter is Derek Norris, who had a decent year. The knock on Norris has always been his defense. What A’s fan doesn’t remember the Royals stealing 7 bases on Norris during the 2015 wild-card game, which undoubtedly contributed to the A’s eventually losing that game. But, as previously mentioned, Norris had an above-average DRS last season, including throwing out 34% of would-be base stealers, which was better than the league average rate of 28%. Norris contributed enough offensively to put him in the upper echelon of NL catchers, and this will be his age 27 season, so there could be some further growth, both offensively and defensively.
If Hedges and/or Bethancourt can grow just a bit more offensively, and Norris remains reasonably healthy, catching won’t be a problem the Padres need to worry about in 2016. Instead, they can worry about other spots on the diamond, like the infield for example… or not?
The Padres infield was, not to belabor the point, an unmitigated disaster in 2014, so Preller went right to work to fix it. His big move: He acquired Will Middlebrooks to play 3B in place of Chase Headley. That was it! First baseman Yonder Alonzo remained, as did second baseman Jedd Gyorko, and shortstop Alexi Amarista also stayed put as the replacement for the toxic waste dump formerly known as Everth Cabrera. Ok, so Preller did decide to sign defensive stalwart Clint Barmes to back up Amarista, but otherwise… that was it! In hindsight, it appears that the Padres could have used a bit more help in the infield, although there were some pleasant surprises.
At first base however, Yonder Alonzo was not a surprise whatsoever. He did exactly what he always does: draw some walks, hit for far less power than is acceptable for a starting major league first baseman, and get hurt. In the end, Alonzo contributed a 1.1 WAR for the season, which is pretty meh, but not disastrous. Still, Preller had seen enough and decided to finally terminate the Alonzo Experience by shipping him to the Oakland A’s (a team that appreciates players who can draw a walk). The Padres will instead give the first base job to last year’s center fielder (in name only) Wil Myers. Imagine, if you will, John Kruk playing centerfield. It would be entertaining, and quite hilarious, unless you were a Padres pitcher. Wil Myers wasn’t quite that bad, but he was pretty bad; a -6 DRS, which, if he had stayed in centerfield the entire year, would have become a -15 DRS. That would have been among the worst marks in baseball. Clearly, Myers was completely miscast as a center fielder, so the Padres decided to move him to first base instead; a very understandable decision. Myers was at one time a top 10 prospect and had a dynamic rookie campaign. Even last year, when he could play, Myers hit reasonably well. Unfortunately, the injury bug hit Myers hard, which is yet another reason to move him to first base. If Myers can stay healthy, he is a decent enough athlete to play first base capably and should improve upon his .253/.336/.427 numbers from last season. Myers is just 25 years old, so better times should be coming for him.
2015 began innocently enough with second base being manned by Jedd Gyorko. In 2013, Gyorko excited Padres fans by leading the team with 23 homers, which impressed the club enough to give him a sweet five year deal. Gyorko responded to this vote of confidence by completely laying an egg in 2014. In preparation for 2015, Gyorko reportedly had worked very hard to improve his swing and his confidence, blah, blah, blah… and the result was something in between 2013 and 2014: a .247/.297/.397 line including 16 homers, in 458 at bats. Not very good, even for a second baseman, although if Gyorko’s defense was good, that might be an acceptable result. Alas, Gyorko’s defense is not good. The Padres recognized this and decided to anoint one of their former first round picks, Cory Spangenberg, as the new solution at second base mid-year, and had the brilliant idea of moving Gyorko from second base to shortstop! The end result was about what one would expect: Gyorko’s defense was below average at second base, and significantly below average at shortstop. This offseason, the Padres finally cut bait on Gyorko and traded him to the Cardinals. Spangenberg will be the starting second baseman in 2016.
Cory Spangenberg was the Padres’ first round pick in 2011 (10th pick overall). He quickly showed a good batting eye and solid hitting skills in the minors, with above average speed, and below average power. Last season, he showed enough to allow the Padres to entrust their second base position to Spangenberg and he didn’t disappoint, hitting .272/.339/.399 in 303 at bats and playing league average defense. If he can get that on base and slugging percentage just a bit higher, Spangenberg will become a fine asset for the team. The second base position in the National League is not exactly teeming with great players right now. Spangenberg compares favorably with Neil Walker, who was thought of highly enough by the Mets to trade for him in his last season before free agency. Spangenberg had a higher batting average and on-base percentage than Walker, and trailed him in slugging percentage but not by much. Spangenberg will be an improvement over Gyorko, both offensively and defensively in 2016.
Alexi Amarista began the 2015 season at shortstop even though he is woefully miscast as a starter at any position. Amarista’s best quality is that he can play anywhere and not look ridiculous. He can hit about as well as a 24th or 25th man on a baseball squad should hit. He should never get more than 150 at bats in any season. Nevertheless, there he was on opening day playing shortstop and providing next to nil at the plate. In the end, the Padres received a nice .207/.257/.287 poke in the eye for their troubles at the position. Installing Gyorko at shortstop in the latter part of the season was more desperation than solution-based thinking at that point, but what option did they have. It is inconceivable that the Padres didn’t find a better shortstop option than Amarista to start the season. Preller didn’t make the same mistake in 2016, signing Alexei Ramirez to man the position this year.
Ramirez is now 34 years old and just trying to hang on. His defense at shortstop has been above average for most of his career, but it’s starting to slip (his DRS was slightly below 0 the last two years). Similarly, his offense had been pretty decent for a shortstop most of his career, but that is starting to slip too, and last year, his OBP was under .300. Still, Ramirez has been generally steady and durable throughout his career, and a bounce-back from his subpar season last year is possible. More likely, Ramirez will struggle to be average, and the Padres will try something else in 2017. Ramirez is about as stop-gappy a stop-gap as one can imagine in this scenario. The Padres are just hoping to plug a hole for now. What is a real shame is that the Padres had a top shortstop prospect just last year, in Trea Turner, before trading him to Washington in one of their many whirlwind trade flurries. Turner will soon be the Nationals shortstop and he’ll be a good one. The Padres sure could use someone like that… oops!
At third base, the aforementioned Will Middlebrooks began the year manning the hot corner, and he showed his power well enough. Unfortunately, Middlebrooks couldn’t keep his average to an acceptable level. Utility player Yangervis Solarte, acquired from the Yankees in 2014 in the Chase Headley deal, began to play more and more at third base and before anyone knew it, he wrested the job from Middlebrooks and everyone else and claimed it for his very own. Solarte hit .270/.320/.428 in 571 at bats and played solid defense, like one would expect from a defense-first utility player. His 2.2 WAR was 3rd on the team. He was a pleasant surprise, but one the Padres will gladly accept. The starting job is his for the foreseeable future, plus, he has a really cool name!
In summary, the Padres look to be slightly above average at catcher, improved at first base, second base, and third base, and hopefully shortstop too. They will likely be above league average at second base and third base, and hope that Wil Myers can at least provide league-average first base production. Ramirez will probably be a below-average shortstop, but the team is hoping that his offensive and defensive production will still be a significant improvement over their 2015 options. Most of the solutions quietly came from in house with the low-cost exception of Ramirez at shortstop (because the Padres needed *something* there). Outfield… well, that will be more of a challenge to resolve.