|Yonder Alonso will shore up first base, where the Padres ranked 13th in the NL in defense in 2011. (US Presswire)|
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Next.
Brad Hawpe couldn't do it. Anthony Rizzo didn't do it. Jorge Cantu bombed. Kyle Blanks blanked. Jesus Guzman was intriguing (.312, 44 RBI) but, really, now. Is a career minor leaguer going to replace All-Star
|San Diego Padres|
GM Josh Byrnes made seven trades in his first three months on the job Likes and dislikes >>
"Obviously, you hear things. You see things about him," says Yonder Alonso, centerpiece of the winter deal that sent Mat Latos to Cincinnati, San Diego's new hope for future. "It's funny. Chase Headley said I had the same approach as him. He said I had the same smooth swing.
"It's pretty cool to hear it from a guy who played with him."
Without Gonzalez, who was dealt to Boston two winters ago, the Padres swung from 90 wins in 2010 to 91 losses in 2011. They ranked 28th in the majors with 593 runs. Only Seattle and San Francisco crossed the plate fewer times.
The middle of their lineup was about as fearsome as a band of junior high boys huddled together in the corner at a school dance. The lack of scoring became even more of an issue when the Padres' defense begin surrendering runs to the other side.
Where Gonzalez is a three-time Gold Glover -- winning two in San Diego -- Padres first basemen last season ranked 13th among the NL's 16 clubs in defense.
It was an utter disaster on -- football term -- both sides of the ball. Then-GM Jed Hoyer gambled that Hawpe, a former first baseman who hadn't played there in years, could pick the position back up. When that failed and the Padres' infield started leaking like the Nixon White House, Hoyer summoned Rizzo, who was scalding pitchers in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. That move backfired, too.
But, hey, bygones, right?
New GM Josh Byrnes engineered a dizzying seven trades in his first three months on the job. In two of them, he took dead aim at the post-Gonzalez era. In came Alonso, a big bat who was Cincinnati's first-round pick in 2008 (out of the University of Miami). Out went Rizzo, a Petco-ized bat who was Boston's sixth-round pick in 2007.
The two could have faced off for the job this spring. But Byrnes wanted to avoid a "quarterback controversy."
Alonso has heard the horror stories of Petco Park, where so many bats before his have gone to their baseball graves. (You won't yet find "Petco-ized" in the Urban Dictionary yet, but you might soon. And the definition will read: "The natural shrinkage that occurs to production numbers when meeting the cold night air and big yard.").
What manager Bud Black likes about Alonso is how, upon meeting him during January workouts in San Diego, the 6-2, 241-pound first baseman gazed toward the Petco Park outfield and exclaimed, "I like it. There's a lot of grass here."
Black told him: "What we need from you is to play your style of game."
No trade comes with a guarantee, but the deal that sent Latos to the Reds for Alonso, pitcher Edinson Volquez, catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Brad Boxberger should have every chance of working out for both sides -- Alonso and the Padres.
The club thinks his inside-out approach with his swing and knack for shooting the gaps -- particularly left-center -- is suited for Petco.
Bust ... Yonder Alonso, 1B: Yonder Alonso's biggest fan is San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes, who traded Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs to make sure there was no "quarterback controversy" at first base heading into spring training. There is no denying Alonso is a great talent. His college resume, his draft status (seventh overall in 2008) and minor-league numbers prove that. Also, Alonso put together a .943 OPS in 47 games with Cincinnati in 2011. But there are a few issues heading into 2012 we need to highlight before Fantasy owners reach for Alonso on Draft Day. The first being that he is moving to pitcher-friendly PETCO Park. Alonso is more of a line-drive hitter, which won't help his power numbers in San Diego. Second, Alonso is just 69 games into his MLB career. Once opposing teams get a better scouting report, the road will almost certainly get tougher for Alonso.
Sleeper ... Edinson Volquez, SP: San Diego presents a fresh start for Edinson Volquez, who was acquired in the Mat Latos trade. Once the ace in Cincinnati, Volquez hasn't been the same since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2009. He is 9-10 with a 5.20 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in his last two MLB seasons (32 starts). Volquez has been plagued by control problems since having elbow surgery, but he showed some promise late in 2011 once he came back from his minor-league banishment. Volquez struck out 19 in 23 2/3 innings and held the opposition to a .250 batting average in four September starts. Another reason to be encouraged is that Volquez has a strong history at his new home ballpark, going 1-1 with a 2.33 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 21 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings. PETCO Park can also help Volquez as he looks to cut down on his home runs allowed. Volquez was plagued by the long ball in 2011, yielding 1.6 homers per nine innings. -- Michael Hurcumb
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"He's a line-to-line hitter," Black says. "He puts the bat on the ball. Good hand-eye coordination. He's got good hands and can manipulate the bat.
"I think there's some game in there. I think there are some RBIs in there."
For Alonso, 24, the trade-off is exactly what he needed: Yeah, there's the shadow of Gonzalez that still shades first base in San Diego. But he's no longer got that ol' 2010 NL MVP, Joey Votto, blocking his path, either.
"Yonder was not going to play here for at least a couple of years," Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty says. "His playing time wasn't going to be there, and he wasn't going to be happy."
As it was, the Reds did summon him to the major last July. And then, 14 of his 16 starts came in left field. He hit .330 with five homers and 15 RBI in 47 games overall, but his future at first base in Cincy was blotto, as in Votto.
Not that studying under Votto for the past four springs was all bad.
"Oooh, man, we can go on for hours and days about Joey," Alonso says when asked what he soaked in. "His work ethic. He has a plan every day he comes to the park. He approaches things like I've never seen the way he carries himself on and off the field.
"If you look up the definition of a professional, Joey Votto's picture should be there. It's unreal."
You know how some kids excel in school because they've learned good study habits? Votto excels, and among other things, Alonso brings some of those learned study habits to San Diego. Most efficient ways to watch video, understanding your body, eating intelligently, taking batting practice with a plan ... all of these things, Alonso says, he's either learned or improved upon from developing alongside Votto.
"I want to be a hitter first, before a power hitter," Alonso says by way of dismissing the Petco intimidation factor. "I'm happy hitting .330 and fewer home runs if we're winning. Just like I'm happy hitting .260 or .270 and driving people in if we're winning ballgames.
"You've gotta win games, man. You do that, and everybody's happy."
Some of that sounds eerily like Rizzo last June, before he tanked to .141, a .281 on-base percentage and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats over his 49-game obstacle course run with the Padres.
But you've got to start somewhere.
And as long as any new meat at first is beginning in an 0 and 2 hole anyway in the teeth of Petco and the Gonzalez memories, maybe Alonso can fight a few off while the Padres try and reverse course. Maybe, reminding some of the dear, departed All-Star first baseman of recent vintage isn't such a bad thing.
"His posture," Headley says. "He doesn't necessarily have Adrian's leg kick. But his posture when he gets ready to hit, that reminds me of Adrian."
Oh, Alonso's ready, all right.