Credit: Paul Beaty – AP
“At this point in my career, I want to be on a winning team. Winning teams are much more fun” – Chris Denorfia
Barring an epic, circa-2011 Red Sox-ian meltdown, there will be at least one playoff game on the Chicago Cubs’ fall schedule – even if it’s only a one-and-done against the Pittsburgh Pirates. And among the players in uniform will be one, Christopher Anthony Denorfia.
A San Diego Padres fan favorite since 2010 when he was called up from AAA to replace Scott Hairston, “Deno” has exemplified all the qualities which many feel have been in short supply on the 2015 edition of this club: heart, hustle, defensive prowess, and intelligence on the base path. He even inspired a YouTube video called “Look at Deno” back in 2011.
In short, the very things that Cubs GM Jed Hoyer loved about Chris when he first signed him to the Padres in 2009 are what drove Hoyer to sign the player with Chicago in January of this year.
“He can play both corners and some center field in a pinch,” Hoyer told ESPN Chicago after the deal was announced. “(He’s) good in the clubhouse. For lack of a better term, he’s a gamer.”
That’s a description which Denorfia has epitomized over and over again throughout his career. From his days as a standout high school infielder at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut (right near where I grew up), to his emergence as an outfielder at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where his .467 batting average attracted major league scouts to an Division III ball club that normally doesn’t garner such attention.
Signed as a 19th round pick by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2002 MLB Draft, Denorfia first reached the majors in 2005, played 49 games for the club in 2006, and then went through a demoralizing period of injuries, beginning in 2007 when he underwent Tommy John surgery, and in 2008 with the Oakland A’s, where he dealt with chronic back tightness that put him on the disabled list.
A strong 2009 season at Triple A Sacramento (where he played all three outfield positions) led to his being signed by Hoyer in December of that year. And that’s when Padres fans began to see firsthand what his new GM had seen – and believed in – for years.
Denorfia hit .271 for the Friars in 2010 with 9 home runs – including an unusual inside-the-park homer at Dodger Stadium that SABR claims is one of the shortest distances ever traveled through the air by a home run ball.
2011 saw him log in 111 games and put up a .277/.337/.381 batting line with 5 homers. 2012 marked a true “breakout” year for “Deno,” where he platooned with Will Venable, appeared in 130 games, and put up the best numbers of his MLB career, batting .293/.345/.451 with 8 homers. And 2013 saw career-highs in games (144), at-bats (473) and hits (132) with a batting line of .279/.337/.395 and the distinction of being named the Padres’ winner of the Heart & Hustle Award and the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award.
2014, however, marked a steep decline in production and a subsequent trade to the Seattle Mariners, leading to questions about his age, bat speed and preparedness for the rigors of another season in the majors.
But those doubts didn’t impede Hoyer and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein from taking the plunge and signing Denorfia to a one-year deal, worth a guaranteed $2.6 million with $400k in incentives.
Evan Altman of “Cubs Insider” called the signing “a nice little puzzle-piece move, one that doesn’t look like much on the outside but helps to round out the roster with a guy who you know won’t be a problem.”
There certainly haven’t been problems with his overall production. Through 94 game appearances, he’s hitting a respectable .268/.318/.359 while achieving a 1.000 Fielding Percentage in all three outfield positions. And that’s clearly the byproduct of a man who’s at ease – and at home – with his new club.
Credit: Gene J. Puskar – AP
“I’m beyond excited to come to the ballpark every day,” Denorfia said in an interview with David Borges of the New Haven Register. “It’s fun to see the new kids coming up, the passion they’re playing with. It rejuvenates you, makes you feel young yourself. I believe in the direction this team is going, and I wanted to be a part of it. Hopefully, this isn’t my last year here.”
There’s an added twist in the fact that this ex-Padre has joined two other former Padres teammates, Anthony Rizzo and left-hander Clayton Richard, on a team put together by an ex-Padre GM that’s on the verge of achieving a goal that the Padres organization itself has long pursued and – once again – failed to accomplish.
“Just being able to play meaningful baseball at the end of August and then September is indescribable how much more fun it is to come to the ballpark every day,” said Denorfia in a Chicago Times interview. “Your body hurts less. You’re not worried about so many other things. You just worry about coming to the ballpark every day and finding a way to help your team win. And that’s your sole focus.”
Keep in mind, this is from a man who’s come OHHH-so-close to playing in the postseason before – missing the playoffs by two games with the Friars in 2010, and by a mere one game last year with the Mariners.
Today, the Cubs face a crucial weekend series with an interdivisional rival that currently holds the first NL wildcard spot: the Pittsburgh Pirates. And while the stakes are high – and the hopes of an entire, long-suffering fan base hang in the balance – Denorfia wouldn’t have it any other way.
“However many years I have left, this is the type of situation I want to be in every single year.”
Here’s hoping there are plenty more years like it for this perennial gamer.