Every December, the Padres and Rays consummate a blockbuster trade. I don’t make the rules; It is government mandated, and AJ Preller’s job depends on it. The 2019 installment saw Tommy Pham and a prospect head to San Diego in exchange for Hunter Renfroe and prospects Xavier Edwards and Esteban Quiroz. The obvious headline was a swap of veteran outfielders in Pham and Renfroe, with the trade even facing backlash from ace Blake Snell — who himself became the headliner in an annual Ray-Padres swap just one year later. At the time, not much was made of the prospect sent to San Diego along with Pham. Just 60 games later, it’s possible that prospect is the best player to come out of the trade. That prospect? Jake Cronenworth.
The Ann Arbor native was selected by the Rays in the 7th round of the 2015 draft after a productive 2-way career at the University of Michigan. Cronenworth played multiple infield positions, slashed .312/.400/.436, and served as the team’s closer (where he set the school record for Saves in his sophomore season). In fact, most scouts expected him to be taken as a pitcher, citing a FB that reached 94 and a plus-plus splitter.
Cronenworth oozes athleticism, participating in USA Hockey’s national team identification program before committing to baseball full time at Michigan. Though he flew under-the-radar, being targeted by two teams known for exemplary player development gives him at least a sprinkling of clout, and coupled with the evident raw athletic ability to add some intrigue as he battled for a bench role going into Spring Training.
By now you know the story. The Rookie of the Year finalist broke out with the bat in 2020, with Eric Hosmer‘s early season injury opening the door for regular ABs at 1B. Cronenworth proved capable of an everyday role and took over as San Diego’s starting second-baseman upon Hosmer’s return. As someone who not only rostered him in many leagues last season, but who has saved more Rake Cronenworth memes than he cares to admit (at least 9), I thought it was worth a deep dive into his breakout rookie season.
We start with his Statcast profile.
There was a point during the season where Cronenworth’s Statcast profile was a sight to behold, with better than 90th percentile ranks in every category. It’s what led me to add him in the first place, and I can’t say I was disappointed. Granted the 2020 season was a true test on weighing small sample size, his end of season ranks signaled a mixed return.
By no means did his production crater. The xStats remained elite throughout the season despite his EV and HH% dropping from elite to just merely good — the reason for which will be explained shortly.
These rankings are a perfect representation of Cronenworth’s raw tools, excelling in the 3 distinct areas of contact, speed, and defense. He has never been the biggest power hitter, but he showed flashes in 2020 including a generous contribution to the Slam Diego fund.
That might look like a wall scraper, but he was expected to hit 7 HRs in 2020 with 3 of the 5 he actually hit being defined as “no-doubters” by Baseball Savant. While I still wouldn’t consider him a power hitter, there is definitely some power in his bat — even if it’s more likely to manifest in the form of line-drive doubles.
As alluded to, the regression monster spares nobody and Cronenworth’s torrid pace eventually came back down to earth.
The condensed season makes analyzing breakouts difficult, even more so for a rookie like Cronenworth. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and rookie breakouts (for hitters) tend to follow a similar trend: A stellar few weeks upon debut, an adjustment period as pitchers build an attack plan, and then a climb back to balance as sample sizes increases and true-talent stabilizes.
Slumps are to be expected with young players. That’s just the reality of baseball. But from a fantasy perspective Cronenworth’s contact skills provided a buffer for fantasy managers, who were more than happy keeping him in the lineup knowing that he wouldn’t tank a team with strikeouts.
While his xwOBA rebounded somewhat, his late season production just didn’t look the same. A glance at his overall quality of contact shows as much.
That dip coincided with pitchers beginning to throw him more breaking balls, but because of the aforementioned contact skills, this adjustment didn’t actually result in more whiffs. Cronenworth was able to maintain a high contact rate, but instead of mashing fastballs was now swinging over-the-top of off-speeds and generating weaker contact. As such, pitchers found him specifically susceptible to pitches low-and-away.
That leads me to believe his xwOBA rebound may have been partially buoyed by elite sprint speed — a reflection of his ability to reach base like this:
Hitting for contact is certainly a tangible skill, but lots of contact is very different than lots of good contact. The success of hitters with elite contact skill is usually predicated on approach. To make lots of good contact, bat-to-ball ability needs to be paired with pitch recognition skills. A free-swinging approach (or lack thereof) for contact hitters won’t necessarily equate to more whiffs, but it significantly limits the amount of damage they can do with a particular swing. They won’t kill you with strikeouts, but their overall impact (especially from a fantasy aspect) will be minimal. Jeff McNeil learned this the hard way. Think of it as death-by-paper-cut.
As the season progressed, Cronenworth began morphing into a similar swing-happy approach. There were still flashes of power, the speed was still evident, and the contact rate was still high. But all of a sudden he began to look more like the versatile role player he was projected to be than the emerging star fans had affectionately dubbed “Rake.” As expected, that approach took its toll despite the high contact rate.
This is where Cronenworth can separate himself. His debut showed he has the ability to patiently wait for pitches he could drive, with a stretch of simultaneous patience and contact quality that McNeil hasn’t replicated. But with a shortened season we are left to wonder if the decline was simply an adjustment period or a regression to his true talent levels that signify an even further decline and adjustment still to come.
For now I’m inclined to believe it’s somewhere in between, but I would love to see his approach and quality of contact stabilize, for fear that he ends up like McNeil.
Rake’s Role for 2021
Though it has little-to-no fantasy relevance, an important part of Cronenworth’s game is his defense. He showed the ability to play around the infield, eventually settling in at the keystone to form an acrobatic double-play combo with the newly-extended Fernando Tatis Jr./strong>.
In an offseason where AJ Preller has seemingly turned the simulation difficulty to “easy,” Cronenworth will have to share playing time with Korean infield addition Ha-Seong Kim and the returning utility presence of Jurickson Profar. With Tatis Jr and Manny Machado locked in at SS and 3B respectively, manager Jayce Tingler will have to rotate his remaining options without the benefit of a DH.
This is where Rake’s defense becomes fantasy relevant. It may not score you points, but it should keep him in the Padres lineup and that’s really all fantasy managers can ask for. Preller has stated the driving force behind San Diego’s shopping spree was building quality depth, and the Padres will likely roll into Spring Training with some sort of rotation between Cronenworth, Kim, and Profar.
There has been some talk of Cronenworth moving to the outfield, which he certainly has both the athleticism and arm strength to play. Kim and Profar may also see time on the grass, but given that defensively Profar can be a bit of… an experience…I would expect Cronenworth and Kim to get a bulk of the starts. Granted a permanent move to the outfield would still see him compete with existing options, added versatility could provide him an opportunity to occupy more than just the strong side of a 2B platoon, especially given his ability to hit both righties and lefties.
So what are the expectations for Cronenworth going into 2021? Most systems have him projected to be somewhat average, with Steamer and The BAT X predicting an exactly-average 100 wRC+ and ZIPS a slightly more bearish 93 wRC+. As a whole, all expect him to get somewhere around 450-500 ABs.
I wish I could disagree with the projections, but I tend to agree that Cronenworth will settle into an average-regular everyday role for 2021 and beyond. His defensive ability and versatility should provide maximum opportunities to remain in a strong Padres lineup, with the burgeoning power/speed upside and multi-position eligibility proving immensely valuable for both real and fantasy value. But given the downfalls of a swing-happy contact approach, his long term outlook hinges on his ability to adjust it.
Photo by Kyusung Gong/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)