The Tampa Bay Rays are known for their savvy front office.
They can help players reach their full potential as the team did with Tyler Glasnow. They also have a knack for identifying future talent as they acquired Randy Arozarena. However, Jake Cronenworth is a huge reminder that they can miss sometimes.
Cronenworth was acquired alongside Tommy Pham in exchange for Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards. At the time, Pham was the key to the trade. He was a veteran outfielder that possessed a great approach at the plate which the Padres desperately needed. Renfroe was a high upside outfielder on a cheaper contract with more years of control and Edwards the #72 ranked prospect in MLB. This left many seeing Cronenworth, a 25-year-old mid-tier prospect, as a throw-in piece.
Fast forward a year and a half, and Cronenworth might be the most valuable player from that whole trade. He has blossomed from a two-way prospect into an elite defender capable of fielding multiple positions and is swinging a scorching bat at the plate.
Cronenworth got his opportunity early on in 2020. Eric Hosmer went to the IL to begin the season, and Cronenworth took over at first in his absence. The first thing that made people notice him was his great defensive plays, such as this one.
Jake Cronenworth shows some range and makes a nice backhanded stop to start a 3-6-1 double play. pic.twitter.com/gfkUtTpb67
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 4, 2020
Those highlight plays were being made in the midst of a hot streak at the plate. In a six-game stretch, he had eight hits, including two triples and a home run. It was one of those early rookie performances that cause people to say, “Who is this?” and “Wow, we are lucky to have him.”
Cronenworth turned enough heads to earn him six first-place NL Rookie of the Year votes, and he would tie for the runner-up spot. At this point, he was far from the “throw in” and “mid-tier prospect” that he was considered at the beginning of the season. He entered the offseason knowing the second base position was his. Then in typical A.J. Preller fashion, the Padres made a bold move, acquiring middle infielder Ha-Seong Kim, the KBO’s best prospect that season.
The addition of Kim came as a surprise to some since he didn’t have a clear path to consistent playing time with the Padres. His best chance was to compete with Cronenworth for playing time at second. Before that, Kim would need time to adjust to MLB pitching before he could threaten anyone’s playing time.
Then in June, Kim looks like he has adjusted. His BB% has increased from 4.4% in May to 12.9% now. His OPS rose from .572 to .781. Keep in mind that the average position player has a .710 OPS. Right now, most damage has come against lefties with a 112 wRC+ and 55 wRC+ against righties. Even with that platoon concern, Kim has earned more playing time.
One potential path takes playing time from Eric Hosmer, who once signed the largest contract in franchise history. Ever since he joined the team, he has struggled with launch angle. The rest of his game has worked–he hit the ball hard, has no glaring holes in his approach, and has some adequate fielding.
He needs to fix his launch angle. In 2020 he did, and his 8.7 launch angle was the highest of his career. To no surprise, he had career-highs in slugging percentage (.517), barrel percentage (10.3), and XWOBACON(.417). Just one year later, he has career lows in slugging, barrels, and his current XWOBACON is the second-lowest.
Again, Cronenworth first caught the fan’s attention with his great defense at first base, and Kim has proven great in the middle infield. It’s time to put Cronenworth at first and Kim at second when facing a lefty. This gives the Padres their best possible offense and possible defense for their infield, and it gives Hosmer time to adjust his swing.
The one person that makes this possible is Jake Cronenworth. He just earned a role as an All-Star reserve after largely being seen as a snub from the fan voting. Among NL second basemen (player has a majority of games played at 2nd), he is 1st in fWar(2.7), 2nd in wRC+(126), and 2nd in slugging (.462). Fernando Tatis Jr.and Manny Machado may get all the credit for the Padres, but its players such as Cronenworth that make them a playoff-bound team.