The Padres have mishandled Jake Cronenworth

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Padres moved Jake Cronenworth to almost exclusively first base this season while also giving him a sizable extension. That is looking like a mistake.

While A.J. Preller is (rightfully) under a lot of fire recently for a slew of failed moves and a seemingly revolving door at manager, one of the best moves he made was the trade to acquire infielder Jake Cronenworth. However, he wasn’t even the main piece of the trade.

On December 6, 2019, the Rays agreed to send veteran outfielder Tommy Pham to the Padres, along with prospect Jake Cronenworth, for a player to be named later, Xavier Edwards and Hunter Renfroe.

Pham was the centerpiece, with the Padres hoping to bolster their outfield and lineup ahead of a possible playoff run in 2020. Cronenworth had not played a single inning in Major League Baseball to that point. He was even considered something of a two-way player, playing infield and appearing in seven games as a starting pitcher for Triple-A Durham in 2019 before the trade.

Pham did not quite work out in San Diego. In parts of two seasons, he batted .226 with a 97 OPS+ and struggled to stay healthy, even while still playing.

Cronenworth, however, turned into a diamond in the rough. He hit his way onto the roster to start the shortened 2020 season and made an instant impact, finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Between 2020 and 2022, he batted .256 with a .770 OPS and 117 OPS+. He was third among all second basemen in those three seasons with 10.0 fWAR. Only Marcus Semien and Jose Altuve had more. He earned All-Star bids in 2021 and 2022 at second base.

2023 is where the Padres went wrong with Cronenworth.

Padres Jake Cronenworth
Credit: AP Photo

First, they signed aging shortstop Xander Bogaerts to a gaudy 11-year, $280 million contract. That pushed Fernando Tatis Jr. to the outfield and fellow super-utility man Ha-Seong Kim to second base. With the departures of Eric Hosmer, Josh Bell, and Wil Myers, it left Cronenworth to man first base.

First base is typically a spot for a power hitter who has subpar defensive skills and athleticism. Those are not words anyone would use to describe Cronenworth.

The Michigan native’s athleticism and versatility were utterly wasted at first base, where he played 106 games in 2023 before having his season cut short in late August with a wrist fracture. The Padres shoehorned Cronenworth to first base instead of utilizing his athleticism all over the diamond.

Plus, the value with his bat diminished dramatically. A .770 OPS at second base is vastly more valuable than the same number for a first baseman. Between 2020 and 2022, his .770 OPS was 10th among second basemen. That would’ve been 19th among qualified first-basemen.

After being a top 10 second baseman in WAR, he dropped to 28th among first basemen with at least 300 plate appearances this season.

He also was not great defensively, despite the assumption his athleticism would make him above average for the position. He ranked in the 33rd percentile for Outs Above Average and was 23rd among all first basemen.

To make matters worse, after making that move to limit his value, the Padres agreed to an extension with the lefty for seven years and $80 million. That is the seventh-highest total value for a contract for a first baseman currently in baseball.

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All that for a first baseman who struggles to bat above .230 and posted a meager 92 OPS+ in 2023.

Now, there are two ways to remedy this. First, it would be to free up the roster to allow Cronenworth to once again roam around the infield (or outfield?) to maximize his value. That would mean trading Ha-Seong Kim or moving Bogaerts to first base. Neither of those scenarios appear likely in 2024.

The other solution is, unfortunately, a trade of the Michigan alum himself. He is still an attractive player, not yet 30 years old, with plenty of MLB experience at a multitude of positions. And a multi-time All-Star to boot. However, the recent extension makes him less enticing. The biggest attractions to Cronenworth was his versatility and, until this season, his cheap price ($4.2 million in 2023). He is owed north of $11 million per year on average with his new deal.

That, and he is still a fan favorite in San Diego. He produced perhaps the most iconic and important hit in Padres history since the 1984 NLCS homer by Steve Garvey. That was his two-run single to give the Padres the lead in Game 4 of the NLDS in 2022 against the Dodgers.

The Padres (more specifically, Preller) backed themselves into a corner with Cronenworth. They cannot continue to have him be a full-time first baseman. He provides little value there, and that isn’t his strong suit.

It’s time the Padres set up their players for success, and that starts with doing right by Cronenworth.

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