Jake Cronenworth finished runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year, and the Padres infielder is well prepared to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
Cody Bellinger. Aaron Judge. Paul DeJong. Andrew Benintendi. Josh Bell.
Five well-known Major League Baseball players who experienced the sophomore slump following outstanding rookie seasons. It happens in almost every sport. The league is a moving target, with players consistently having to make adjustments, especially with all the analytical information available to teams these days.
For Jake Cronenworth, he led the National League with 15 doubles in the shortened 2020 campaign, and the Padres’ second baseman finished runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. However, like most rookies before him, Cronenworth isn’t a kid. The 27-year-old spent a significant amount of time in the minor leagues and only made his big league debut after being acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays last offseason.
“I don’t think I could have been put in a better position,” the University of Michigan product explained. “Looking back, you never know what would have happened if I hadn’t been traded. I made my debut as a pinch-runner, first baseman.”
Of course, Cronenworth’s debut could have been delayed even further had Eric Hosmer not been sidelined with gastrointestinal issues early in the season. The Padres already had a crowded infield last season, but the 27-year-old’s eye-popping defense at first base and hot start at the plate forced manager Jayce Tingler to continue playing him at second base when Hosmer returned.
Heading into the 2021 season, the infield is even more crowded after Padres inked Korean superstar Ha-Seong Kim to a four-year deal. But the latter owns a .130 average in 11 spring training games entering Saturday’s matchup with the Dodgers. Cronenworth has played well in the spring exhibitions, batting .320 with a double, a triple, and two RBI’s in 11 games.
It would appear second base is his job to lose. Still, certainly, manager Jayce Tingler will have to get creative finding the appropriate amount of playing time for Cronenworth, Kim, and Jurickson Profar, who returned to the team on a three-year deal.
Cronenworth’s struggles toward the latter portion of the season are well-known. He hit just .183 in October and .237 in the second half of the 60-game slate. The Padres have one of the most highly-regarded hitting coaches in the game in Damion Easley, assisting Cronenworth with several adjustments down the stretch. Cronenworth hit a combined .389 in six postseason games.
“Whether it’s in BP or in a game, he’s always got his eyes and ears open to what you’re doing and what you’re saying,” Cronenworth said of his hitting coach, who is entering his third year with the club. “I put my trust in him to know that he’s on the right track with me. Whether I’m not using my legs enough. Usually, with me and “Ease,” it’s not much about mechanics. It’s more approach stuff.”
The Padres arguably have the most talented infield in baseball or, at the very least, the most expensive. Cronenworth is the exception, earning $575,000 in 2021 and under team control through the 2025 season. With Fernando Tatis Jr. signing a lifetime contract this offseason, the group of infielders figures to be together for the foreseeable future.
And in year two, Cronenworth will likely be asked to play multiple positions, but he’s confident there will be no sophomore slump.
“I feel comfortable. Obviously, you’ll feel more comfortable as you get more at-bat in spring training. The vibe in the clubhouse is awesome. Everybody is super excited to get the season going.”