Among the most compelling storylines as the 2023 MLB season approaches is the San Diego Padres project, an attempt at a rapid ascent to contention accelerated by a series of aggressive acquisitions. While the Padres’ hopes at a championship are headlined by its fearsome quartet of position player stars — Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, and Xander Bogaerts — the team’s depth was a crucial factor in its success last year, when the Padres won 89 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series.
Jake Cronenworth stands at the center of that position player depth. Though some fans might recognize the San Diego second baseman as a solid everyday player and a former two-way prospect, others might not realize that Cronenworth has become one of the best second basemen in the major leagues over the last three seasons. Among qualified second basemen, he is third in fWAR since his debut, only behind Jose Altuve and Marcus Semien. If we just consider qualified National League second basemen, he leads the league in fWAR over that period.
He’s done so by establishing himself as an incredibly competent big-leaguer in numerous areas: his defense is outstanding, he’s flashed some power in his bat, and he gets on base at a decent rate — all combining to make him a 4 WAR player and an All-Star in two consecutive 162 game seasons. In FanGraphs’ 2022 edition of the Trade Value series, he was ranked as the 31st most valuable player in baseball.
Why is 2023 such a big year for him, then? Given the Padres’ acquisition of Bogaerts, the emergence of defensive stalwart Ha-Seong Kim, and Tatís’ return, the team will likely shift around its infield positioning this year. According to a February report from AJ Cassavell of MLB.com, Cronenworth is likely to spend the majority of his time at first base and play second when it is needed, while Bogaerts and Kim man the middle infield. What does this shift mean for Cronenworth’s budding stardom?
Durability and Versatility
When the Padres dealt Hunter Renfroe to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2019, Tommy Pham headlined the return package, a promising veteran outfielder that seemed likely to provide above-average offense for the next few seasons. But the less-heralded Cronenworth, who was also sent to San Diego, proved to be the lodestar for the Padres, quickly emerging as a consistent contributor in a breakout 2020 season. A FanGraphs Top 100 prospect, he was called “the Padres’ everyday second basemen for the next half decade” upon his debut — a brief blurb that now looks like a prescient prediction.
Cronenworth’s premier skill could be that he’s above average at everything on a baseball field, a capability that has been a crucial part of his profile since his college days. At the University of Michigan, he spent three years dominating Big Ten pitchers at the plate while also delivering quality innings on the mound, mostly as a reliever — he’s second on the school’s career saves leaderboard with 27. That two-way prowess extended briefly into the minor leagues, where the Rays encouraged him to toss a few innings from the mound in Triple-A.
As Pham’s offensive production withered in 2021 and 2022, it quickly became clear that Cronenworth would be an important part of the Padres’ future in 2020. He arrived to MLB with a .285/.354/.477 slash line for a 126 wRC+, earning 1.6 fWAR over 2020’s shortened season, in which he played 54 games. His lefty stroke added length to a burgeoning Padres lineup in need of more depth around Tatís Jr. and Machado.
Welcome to the club, Rook.
Jake Cronenworth gets in on the #Padres grand slam trend.
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) August 23, 2020
In the two full seasons following his rookie year, the second baseman has established himself as one of the most consistent players at his position, posting consecutive seasons with a wRC+ of 109 or above, while serving as an excellent fielder as well. When compared with the rest of the best second basemen in the league, his value becomes clear.
Among second basemen with at least 8 fWAR over the last three seasons, Cronenworth’s all-around proficiency offers substantial value: he suits up for almost every game, chases pitches at a lower rate than Marcus Semien, and barrels more balls than Jose Altuve, all while helping his team on defense. That kind of player is seriously valuable to teams at the second base position, where the league average wRC+ was 96 in 2022. If he remains on that kind of track, he could be setting himself up for a considerable payday when he hits free agency after 2025.
That’s not to say Cronenworth’s offensive profile is perfect. He struggled to get to all of his power in 2022, much like the rest of the league. While he blasted 21 homers in 2021 and slugged .460, he only managed a .390 slugging percentage in 2022. The underlying numbers back up that descent as well, as his barrel rate, xWOBA, and Hard-Hit% all declined. Nonetheless, he earned a 109 wRC+ with a .722 OPS in a diminished offensive environment, sparking confidence that even in a slightly weaker offensive season, he can still provide value.
His offensive profile, which has leaned towards superlative throughout the majority of his three seasons, is supported by a sound approach. His career 15.4% strikeout rate and 9.4% walk rate is the type of foundation you can bank on to ensure some level of consistency as a hitter — his slumps shouldn’t be as severe as Brandon Lowe, for example, whose whiffs are baked into his offensive profile.
He’s also been brilliant at making contact when he does swing, as his career Z-Contact% of 91.2% is significantly better than the MLB 2022 average of 83.3%. That level approach made a dazzling appearance in this year’s playoffs, when he flicked a 2-2 slider from Alex Vesia into center field for a two-run single, putting the Padres ahead for good in the NLCS against their bitter rivals, the Dodgers.
JAKE CRONENWORTH PUTS THE PADRES ON TOP! pic.twitter.com/o3k6x0Y6OT
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 16, 2022
What would it mean for a career second baseman to switch positions, as it appears the Padres are planning in 2023? It would likely change how we think about Cronenworth a lot. While second base is a weaker offensive position, first basemen are generally relied upon to be the premier run creators in their respective lineups. The average MLB wRC+ for a first baseman was 107 in 2022, and while Cronenworth is likely to top that number, he probably wouldn’t provide the kind of offensive potential that other first basemen around the league offer — ZiPS projects him for a 119 wRC+, while the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman is projected for a 147 wRC+.
Even more, it’s possible Cronenworth’s defensive prowess could take a hit at a position where he would be unable to utilize some of his potential. Known for the occasional highlight play, Cronenworth has provided considerable stability at second base for the Padres, but he’s also flashed the ability to take on other positions. With over 300 innings as a shortstop where he grades out evenly (at 0 Outs Above Average, per Statcast), Cronenworth can play there if the Padres need him to as well. This is clearly an athlete with the ability to handle the most challenging infield positions.
JAKE CRONENWORTH FLASHING THE LEATHER pic.twitter.com/msM4njQJ77
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 19, 2022
Though the move to first base would certainly change Cronenworth’s career, there is another important possibility to consider: he becomes a stellar defensive first baseman and finds a way to add considerable value that way. Though prolific defensive seasons at first base are fairly uncommon, they’re not obsolete.
While most people don’t think of first basemen as adding a lot of defensive value, there’s a recent history of players establishing a respectable floor for their performance there. Most of these players don’t have the athletic range of Cronenworth, who had a 74th-percentile sprint speed in 2022 and has experience playing all around the diamond. In Cronenworth’s limited time at first base, the early returns have been quite good. In 82 attempts, he’s converted 3% more plays than expected, resulting in 3 Outs Above Average at the position.
So, a move to first base wouldn’t necessarily spell disaster for Cronenworth. The fourth-year player could lose some of his ability to make eye-catching plays at second base, but his athleticism and defensive skills would likely play up at the new position. Even more, he would likely be an upgrade on both sides of the ball for the Padres, who haven’t had an adequate long-term answer at the position for a long time, and have relied on the middling contributions of Eric Hosmer for years.
Although the idea of pushing a player away from a position he excels at appears dangerous in a vacuum, it’s hard to see a way that this shift does not help the Padres. A defensive combination of Machado, Bogaerts, Kim, and Cronenworth is scintillating — and whatever first base production Cronenworth provides will likely be better than what San Diego had before. Even if Cronenworth regresses offensively, which seems unlikely for a 29-year-old, the Padres have an explosive offensive engine that should churn no matter what. Additionally, having an excess of talented players is never a bad thing: Cronenworth can fill in at second base or shortstop if there’s an injury or someone needs a rest day, and the signings of Nelson Cruz and Matt Carpenter will likely provide solid first base depth.
For fantasy players, Cronenworth’s second base eligibility from last season will mean he offers solid value at the position. Given his likelihood to hit in the middle of a devastating San Diego lineup, he will probably offer solid counting stats as well. If he’s able to get to more of his power and pull more of the balls he hits in the air, he could return to the 20-homer power of his 2021 season and maybe even unlock more of his star upside. Nonetheless, he appears set for another above-average offensive year.
In all likelihood, his defensive value will be the true variable for how successful of a season Cronenworth has. For him, that kind of uncertainty doesn’t bother him. “I’ve done it plenty now, to where I’m comfortable doing it,” Cronenworth told Cassavell about not having one set position. “As long I’m in there helping the team, any way possible, that’s all I can ask for.” For the Padres? It’s a good problem to have.