Going into the 2013 season, first base is the most obvious position etched in stone for the Padres. During last offseason, the Padres made a blockbuster trade that brought over Yonder Alonso, right-handers Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger, and catching prospect Yasmani Grandal in exchange for Mat Latos.
The Padres already had a first base successor to Adrian Gonzalez,(or so it seemed) in Anthony Rizzo going into 2012. Rizzo was admittedly brought up too early by former general manager Jed Hoyer in 2011. He struggled mightily upon promotion and had some mechanical issues. Rizzo, now 23, batted just .141/.281/242, 8 2B, 1 3B, 1HR, 9 RBI and 46 K in 148 AB. This underwhelming performance had the front office concerned he would (as a left-handed hitter) be hindered by PETCO Park and never reach his full potential in San Diego.
In addition, the Padres seemed very excited with the notion of using their strength, first base depth via trade, to get competitive faster by bolstering their relief pitching core that was depleted the year before. So, they acquired a player who, in theory, would be more ideal to flourish in PETCO Park in Alonso. The Padres flipped Rizzo, who was the number-one first base prospect at the time, according to MLB.com, along with minor league pitcher Zach Cates for fireballer Andrew Cashner and lower-level outfielder Kyung-Min Na.
Alonso went into 2012 with high expectations after hitting .330/.398/.545, 4 2B, 5 HR, 15 RBI in 88 AB for the Reds in 2011. Those number can be taken with a grain of salt, as The Great American Ballpark is one of the most hitter-friendly parks in all of baseball, basically the polar opposite to cavernous PETCO Park. I might point out that, while he did not statistically speaking hit well in The Great American Ballpark, he was also playing in a hitters league in the NL Central for those stat nitpickers.
Alonso, 25, started off slow in April, which is not uncommon, especially in PETCO Park, batting a pedestrian .253/.329/.347 but with seven doubles in 75 at-bats. In May, he really cam on strong batting .298/381./413, with 31 hits (his highest monthly hit total), nine doubles and his first home run as a Padre. Overall, Alonso hit .263/.344/.362, with three home runs and 23 RBI to go along with 20 doubles pre-All Star game, and batted 23 points higher post-All Star game, going .285/.352/.430, 19 2B, 6 HR, 39 RBI in 256 AB. Alonso proved to be durable, playing in 155 games, which would be most among NL rookies. He also lead all NL rookies (tying Norichika Aoki) in hits with 150.
Maybe most impressive, he lead all rookies with 39 doubles. He broke a previous Padres rookie doubles record that was formally set by Benito Santiago in 1987 with 33. His 39 doubles would tie for 10th among Padres single-season leaders with Ryan Klesko in 2002. In addition, he accumulated an impressive 10 multi-doubles games that broke a Padres record held by current Hall of Famer Tony Gywnn in 1993 and shared by former Padre Adrian Gonzalez in 2007 with six. Alonso finished last year batting .273/.348/.393, 39 2B, 9 HR and 62 RBI with as many walks in 549 AB. While only three of his nine home runs were hit at home, lived up to fitting to the PETCO Park mold, batting higher at home at a .276/.362/398 clip, versus on the road, where he batted .271/.334/.389. Another positive for Alonso, is he batted well against left-handed pitching, which is often a struggle for most left-handed hitters. He batted a clean .261/.327/.366. So, by all accounts, he did just what the Padres were expecting him to do, and probably exceeded expectations on many fronts.
While Rizzo did hit well once he was brought up for the Cubs last year, batting .285/.342/.463, 15 2B, 15 HR, 48 RBI in 337 AB, he also did so in a much more hitter-friendly park and division.
While I didn’t like the reason (PETCO Park) for the trade at the time, it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the years and how well Cashner can also bounce back from an aggravated lat muscle injury that shut him down.
There is a lot to like about Alonso and his future is bright. Now that the Padres are bringing in the fences in PETCO Park, it’s likely to see him stay within his game and improve his power production.