With Chase Headley as the Padres established everyday third baseman going into 2012, the big question is what will San Diego do with James Darnell? It looks like he will start the season in triple-A Tucson, but does he have a future in the Padres organization? Last year, when Headley went down with a broken finger, I speculated that Darnell, a natural third baseman, could get a legitimate shot given the organizational depth. Darnell had some playing time last year, until a diving attempt resulted in a dislocated shoulder that shut him down. The Padres do not view Jesus Guzman (and for good reason, he’s a terrible defender) as an MLB third baseman. Logan Forsythe has had brief time with the club at third, but is out with a broken foot. Edinson Rincon is also an intriguing prospect but has questions regarding his defense and is at least two years away.
My view has been the Padres would strongly consider moving Headley at the trade deadline and use Darnell as a stop-gap player until one of the top prospects is ready. That brings me to Jedd Gyorko, very highly regarded around baseball (#71 overall by MLB.com) and the favorite internally. However, he is probably a year away from being an everyday third baseman. I view Gyorko as the Padres third baseman for years to come.
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Recently, the Padres have moved Darnell back to his natural position, third base. He was being tested in the outfield in attempt to possibly get his bat in the lineup at the MLB level. Having Darnell back primarily at third makes me wonder: Are they are grooming him to step in this season type move?
Headley could be a mainstay in PETCO Park. However, the Padres locked up both Nick Hundley and Cameron Maybin before Headley, who has been outspoken about his displeasure with PETCO Park. Maybe that bothers the Padres? It’s telling the Padres didn’t lock up the more tenured and established player in Headley. The Padres are looking for players who could fit PETCO’s mold more favorably moving forward. I believe the Padres will look long and hard at dealing Headley at the deadline, and we will see Darnell as a stop-gap to Gyorko.
While the Padres would lose overall production from third base initially with the loss of Headley, there’s a chance to cash in a long-term reward by bringing in a player who is better suited for PETCO, which eats up left-handed hitting — and Headley bats the majority of time as a switch hitter from the left side. The Padres are thin at shortstop, and I could see dealing Headley for a promising shortstop.
Darnell, who was was named the Padres 2009 Minor League Player of the Year, is having a solid spring, batting .303/.333/.462 with three doubles, one homer and six RBI in 39 at-bats. He split last season between the Padres minor league affiliates San Antonio (76 games, .333/.434/.604) and Tucson (35 games, .261/.344/.425) with a combined 26 home runs between both leagues.
On May 20, 2011, Matthew Eddy of Baseball America had this to say about the three aforementioned prospects: “Gyorko is the only one of the three who profiles at the position defensively. Edinson Rincon has virtually no shot at sticking there, while James Darnell has the range and arm strength, but he’s a big dude who may simply outgrow the position. His footwork already costs him accuracy on his throws, so many expect a shift to first or to right field.”
I believe the Padres will give Darnell a shot, while Gyorko seasons in the minors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they traded Headley by the deadline for another top prospect.