Several times throughout the 2019 season, the San Diego Padres had men playing out of position. If the team wants to improve their play, they must improve their defensive vversatility.
Thanks to the acquisition of Manny Machado and the callup of Fernando Tatis Jr., this Padres season began with an aura of excitement, even hope. Tatis Jr.’s sparking play together with pitcher Chris Paddack’s hot start added to the positive vibe. However, by the end of August, the results switched to déjà vu all over again (as Yogi Berra might have remarked).
At that point, General Manager A.J. Preller switched gears and the rest of the season became a game of let’s throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. In reality, little stuck, in part because multiple players were actually put in positions in which they were almost destined to fail.
Baseball has been called a game of failure with good reason as the top hitters fail approximately 70 percent of the time. The best organizations put players in positions to succeed, but the Padres actually put players in positions to fail. Obviously, Preller put the roster together, but it’s unclear whether he or ex-manager Andy Green or a combination thereof made the decisions regarding positioning.
With the acquisitions of Wil Myers and then Eric Hosmer, Josh Naylor became a man without a position. Drafted by the Miami Marlins in the first round in 2015, he spent the majority of his minor league career manning first base or left field, with only 59 games total in right field.
Although probably a designated hitter in the waiting, the Padres decided to try Naylor in left field. Since that was not a disaster, the front office upped the ante and put him in right.
In 2019, he appeared in 33 games in left and 31 in right, committing six errors and compiling a .936 fielding percentage. Although out of his comfort zone in left, he looked totally unmoored in right field.
Luis Urias has been a second baseman for the bulk of his minor league career. But when Tatis went down, the Padres chose to move him to short and Ty France to second with close to disastrous results. For some reason, the Padres chose this solution rather than sliding Manny Machado over to short and putting Urias and France in their comfort zones of second and third respectively.
In relatively unfamiliar territory, Urias made nine errors. According to FanGraphs UZR/150 (runs above average per 150 defensive games) Urias rated -5.5 at shortstop but had positive results at second (17.2 in 108 innings in 2018 and 3.3 in 212 innings in 2019).
The puzzling acquisition of Ian Kinsler further complicated the situation at second base and could have further eroded Urias’ dwindling confidence. Originally signed to fill the role of clubhouse leader, pinch hitter, and occasional starter, Kinsler instead took playing time away from Urias at second. In 87 games for San Diego, he batted a disappointing .217/.278/.368/.646.
Throughout the minors, Urias had a knack for getting on base (a skill sorely lacking with the big league team). In the minors he had a collective batting line of .308/.397/.433/.830. With the Padres this year he batted .223/.329/.326/.618. He seemed to abandon his get-on-base approach to join his teammates in aiming for the fences, but his struggles at the plate could also have carried over from the demands of shortstop.
A product of San Diego State University and MVP of Pacific Coast League, France started at third in 289 games but also played 98 at first. Third base requires a totally different skill set than second, namely a strong arm and ability to reach hot smashes down the line. Large slow guys do not fit the profile for second and usually find themselves at the corners.
Playing in a foreign position has to be especially daunting for a rookie trying to prove himself. Hitting not defense has been his strong point, but he batted just .234/.294/.402/.696 in 184 at-bats with the Padres.
The less said about Wil Myers in center field the better. Having been displaced from his primary position at first, the Padres have searched for a home on the diamond for Myers since he’ll be around for a while unless the team can find a taker for him and his hefty contract beginning next year.
Third base turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, but he’s seemed most comfortable in left as an alternative to first base. Although Myers is serviceable in right, he’s out of his league in center field where he has a cumulative career .986 fielding percentage and -9 Rtot (total zone fielding runs above average). That didn’t stop the Padres from playing Myers in center in 66 games.
Since the infamous three-way trade that sent Trea Turner to the Washington Nations and brought Myers to San Diego, team officials have spoken in gushing terms about his athleticism and ability to play all over the diamond despite compelling results to the contrary.
Speaking of center field, Hunter Renfroe found himself in center for four games, despite the fact that he’d started in center in only 36 games in his six-year minor league career. His best position is right field, and he’s improved his defense measurably this year.
Covering center field, however, calls for a player with much more speed and range, like Manuel Margot and the forgotten man Travis Jankowski (who started only two games and appeared in five in center when he returned from the injured list).
Perhaps even more puzzling than the addition of Kinsler was the that of Nick Martini, who was claimed off waivers from the Oakland Athletics in late August. He can only play left (and not all that well), but Padres’ brass valued his penchant for getting on base. Perhaps the poster child for throwing stuff on the wall, he just complicated the outfield situation going forward. In 2018, he batted .269/.372/.380/.751 with the A’s but didn’t match those numbers this year with the Padres (.226/.330/.323/.653).
Acquired as a shortstop from the Red Sox in the 2015 Craig Kimbrel trade, the Padres envisioned him as just the man to fill the gaping hole left at that position when Khalil Greene was traded in 2009.
However thanks to his anemic plate appearances but live arm registering between 96-100 mph, the Padres tried him on the mound beginning this season. Since he’s a novice at pitcher, the Padres may have rushed him to the majors as a minor league call-up at the beginning of September. In his very first outing, Andy Green left him in to give up three straight home runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks in a 14-7 shellacking which left him with an ERA of 54.00. To his credit, he brought that down to 5.19 by the end of the season in which he pitched 8.2 innings.
For young players especially, playing outside a comfort zone can seriously erode confidence and spiral out of control as evidenced in the sloppy defense that characterized the last half of this season. But a veteran like Wil Myers is not immune to humiliation. His confidence must be in freefall at this point in his tenure in San Diego.
For an organization with the announced intention of contending in future years, putting players in positions to fail makes absolutely no sense.