Padres Infield of dreams...

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T15D23
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Padres Infield of dreams...

Postby T15D23 » Mon Feb 25, 2019 11:30 pm

Manny Machado’s arrival has the Padres envisioning an infield of dreams
Dennis Lin

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EORIA,​ Ariz. —​ Craig​ Stammen​ debuted in​ the nation’s capital almost​ a decade​ ago. The situation​ qualified as​ less than​​ ideal. Stammen was a rookie starting pitcher on an overmatched roster. He took the mound in 19 games. He logged a 5.11 ERA.

The club’s best player during that 2009 season was a third baseman named Ryan Zimmerman. He cranked 33 home runs and snagged a Gold Glove award. The rest of the infield consisted of less reliable options, below average or declining on either side of the ball. The Washington Nationals staggered past the 100-loss mark for the second year in a row.

Two years later, the quartet of Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa helped steer the Nats to 80 wins. The following season, mostly the same group — Adam LaRoche had replaced Morse as the primary first baseman — celebrated 98 victories and the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1981.

“That infield defense turned our pitching staff around,” said Stammen, now the savvy leader of the San Diego bullpen. “It kind of turned our team around.”

These days, Stammen and the Padres hold high hopes for a similar reversal.

On Friday morning, necks craned as Manny Machado strode into a room at Peoria Stadium. To some in attendance, the gathering might have had a dream-like quality. The Padres were to formally introduce Machado, maybe the finest third baseman of his generation. The two sides had struck a 10-year, $300 million deal that established a record for North American free agency.

Before the signing, the Padres’ projected 2019 infield featured Eric Hosmer, an accomplished first baseman coming off an underwhelming season, alongside a mix of untapped potential and question marks.

At second base, Ian Kinsler has amassed more than 8,000 plate appearances as he approaches his 37th birthday. Luis Urías, meanwhile, is a hitting savant — and a veteran of 12 major-league games.

At shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr. is a virtually peerless prospect, albeit one with no experience above Double A and a couple of winter-ball stints. Urías and utility man Greg Garcia could share the position until Tatis surfaces.

And, at third base, the Padres’ need was one of the worst-kept secrets in the sport.

Opportunistic general manager A.J. Preller spent much of the winter attempting to land a solution via trade. His efforts proved unsuccessful. He unexpectedly pivoted to the high-stakes pursuit of a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner. At Friday’s landmark press conference, Preller spoke of an “exclamation point.”

Machado’s arrival dramatically alters the situation. Saturday, fans flocked behind a screened fence at the Peoria Sports Complex, trying to glimpse a rare collection of talent. The occasion, an early spring session of infield practice, felt casual and momentous at the same time.

“I like that group as much as any group we’ve ever had,” Padres manager Andy Green said earlier that morning. “I look back to what we had when I showed up. It’s going to be fun.”

On four occasions during Machado’s seven-year career, FanGraphs has measured his value at 5.0 Wins Above Replacement or better. Variations on that metric are omnipresent in modern front offices, a catch-all tool for determining the worth of both rostered players and prospective acquisitions.

Teams shield their in-house algorithms from view, but publicly available numbers still point to the overwhelming relevance of WAR. In 2018, the top three players according to FanGraphs’ version — Mookie Betts (10.4), Mike Trout (9.8) and José Ramírez (8.0) — doubled as the top three vote-getters, in identical order, for the American League MVP award.

The Padres roster has settled at the other end of the spectrum. In Green’s first three seasons as manager, all batters combined for only 25.0 WAR. The next-worst offense in baseball, the Baltimore Orioles, finished at 35.8 WAR.

Without him, Machado’s former team would have challenged the lack of production in San Diego. The infielder accounted for 15.1 WAR across the last three seasons. His peak came in 2015, when he accrued 6.6 WAR while playing all 162 games, but many scouts regard 2018 as his best performance.

In addition to tying or setting career highs in home runs (37), OPS (.905) and games (162), Machado logged 6.2 WAR while tackling the task of being an everyday shortstop. He had moved because he relishes the position and because the Orioles had an opening. The transition, though, could have gone more smoothly.

Machado remained at short after a July trade to Los Angeles. His defensive metrics saw an uptick, the Dodgers apparently using their knowledge of positioning to desired effect. Still, 96 starts as an Orioles shortstop tamped down Machado’s overall WAR for the season.

With San Diego, Machado will revert to playing third base because the Padres are paying him hundreds of millions and because Tatis himself could be a generational talent. Padres infield coach Damion Easley’s knowledge of the young shortstop stretches back more than a decade, to when Easley and Fernando Tatis Sr. were New York Mets teammates.

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Padres shortstop prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. is expected to work closely with Manny Machado, the team’s new third baseman. (Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“He’s very unique,” Easley said of Tatis Jr. “He can hang with the big-league group right now, physically. Mentally, he’ll catch up. I know his mind works, I know he sees the game. His dad’s done a great job teaching him the game.”

“He’s an absolute beast,” Machado said. “He reminds me of myself when I was 20, 19 years old. … I got my Gold Gloves because of (former Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy), having him next to me. So hopefully, I can do the same for (Tatis). Just teach him everything I know.”

Machado’s return to his more familiar position has drawn applause from players and pundits alike. “He’s probably one of three guys in the world who can hold it down (at third base) better than anybody,” Hosmer said. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system, considered one of the more accurate predictors in the industry, forecasts that Machado, 26, will crack 5.0 WAR in each of his next four seasons.

Only two Padres position players have recorded more than one season of 5.0 WAR or better. Tony Gwynn did it four times. Brian Giles did it twice.

Now, the Padres have two candidates to cross that threshold in Machado and, eventually, Tatis. Hosmer and Urías are seen as competent hitters who also will provide staunch defense.

“Any time you’ve got Hos and then you add Manny, you’ve got two Gold Glovers there,” said recently signed reliever Aaron Loup, who spent most of the last seven seasons in the American League East (Machado is 4-for-9 off him). “And then you’ve probably got two other guys who could end up being future Gold Glovers playing behind you. You can’t be mad at that.”

In 1997, Ken Caminiti drilled 26 home runs and fired cross-diamond throws to Wally Joyner, who hit .327 with a .390 on-base percentage. Derrek Lee, playing the same position as Joyner, and shortstop Juan Melo opened that season as Baseball America’s Nos. 15 and 36 prospects, respectively.

There has never been another instance when the Padres extracted 3.5 WAR from a third baseman and 1.5 WAR from a first baseman while incubating multiple top-100 infield prospects. Until, perhaps, this year.

Potential does not double as a guarantee, of course. Tatis, 20, could see the swing-and-miss in his game amplified at the highest level. Urías, 21, might never acquire enough pop to separate him from countless other second basemen. After an underwhelming season, Hosmer might face an uphill battle to earn his eight-year, $144 million contract. And Machado, a career .271/.319/.442 hitter on the road, is no longer playing half of his games at Camden Yards.

Yet the Padres’ new third baseman also has piled up 30.2 WAR through seven seasons. No player has supplied more value in a San Diego uniform outside of Gwynn, who finished his 20-year career at 65.0 WAR. (Dave Winfield is second, with 29.1 WAR across eight seasons.)

Before his own arrival, Green witnessed similar everyday impact while coaching Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona. The first baseman, now with St. Louis, will enter his ninth season at 36.3 WAR.

“To have that anchor in your lineup that you build around … and then some guys emerging, everybody will feed off that collectively,” Green said, “that confidence you feel by having a perennial All-Star in the middle of your order.”

Machado should exert his influence on Urías and, in particular, Tatis. The two share an agent and have been in regular communication since July, when the All-Star and Futures games were played hours apart at Nationals Park. Tatis’ reverence predates that meeting; the prospect said Machado has been his favorite player for the last five years.

“Just watching him and Tatis take ground balls side to side (Saturday), I know Tatis was watching him, watching how he does his thing,” Easley said. “He’s never rushed; he’s never out of control. And it was good for Fernando to see that.

“The thing that sticks out to me is (Machado) plays under control, which is what I like. It seems like he has a good tempo to his game, with the bat and on defense, and that puts him in great positions to be successful.”

A mutual admirer, Machado said that, at 20, he did not match Tatis’ current strength. Many scouts agree. Parallels exist elsewhere, prospect hype included.

“He’s kind of almost like Bryce Harper was for the Nationals when he first came up,” Stammen said, comparing Tatis to a former teammate. “(Harper) was 19 years old, got called up middle of the season, and all of a sudden we had this tremendous amount of energy on the team.”

“The talent level is out of this world,” Padres closer Kirby Yates added. “You don’t know where to set the sights or expectations, just because they could be so high. On the other hand, you don’t want to set them too high and put too much pressure on him.

“The veterans that we have now, adding Kinsler, and now we’ve got Manny to go along with Hos … (Tatis) doesn’t have to come up and carry us to the promised land or anything like that. He just has to come up and help us win.”

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Second-base prospect Luis Urías will also see time at shortstop. (Michael Spomer/Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

While the Padres’ opening-day infield could include Urías at shortstop and Kinsler at second base, Tatis might debut as soon as mid-April. Kinsler then could shift to more of a supporting role, though his presence serves as insurance against any growing pains Urías might experience.

If the Padres opt to give Tatis more development time, Urías could continue playing next to Machado. By design, he will spend much of the spring taking ground balls on the left side. For now, the middle of the infield remains somewhat malleable.

“I’ve been playing my whole minor-league career at second base, and that’s the position where I have my confidence,” Urías said. “But I don’t have problems playing shortstop, either.”

Meanwhile, third base has gone from a question mark to the Padres’ position of greatest strength. The infield suddenly lacks an obvious hole.

Of course, the games that count have yet to begin. Potential and reality remain two different things. But Machado’s arrival is no dream.

“Having a guy like him,” Tatis said, “it changes a lot of things.”Padr
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