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The new year is just a few “best-and-worst of-2013“ lists away, and once the calendar turns to January, that means only about six more weeks until… say it with me… pitchers and catchers report! That’s right, Spring Training, the time of year when fans in every city, even Seattle this year, are filled with hope.
Padres fans are as full of hope as anyone, with young or in-their-prime talent at just about every position. Will this be the first year San Diego makes the postseason since, well, since before we had Game of Thrones to take our minds off of the fact that they didn’t?
In order to compete, multiple Padres are going to need to make 2014 the year when their production finally matches their potential. We’ve been teased too often over the last few years:
- The second half of 2012 had Chase Headley busting out in a big way, only to retreat again in 2013.
- The first half of 2013 had Everth Cabrera emerge as an elite major-league leadoff man, before heading off to PED-purgatory.
- The latter half of 2013 had Will Venable finally putting up the combined speed/power numbers we’ve been patiently awaiting since 2008.
- A few other Friars, notably Jedd Gyorko and Andrew Cashner, established themselves last year as legitimate major-league talent, and could be ready to break out this year as All-Stars.
In order to play October baseball, the Padres will have to be a big dog in the NL West. Why don’t we do a little position-by-position comparison and see how they stack up? Today, let’s look at First Base.
The candidates are Brandon Belt of the Giants, the Rockies’ Justin Morneau, Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona, Adrian Gonzalez of the Dodgers, and the home team’s own Yonder Alonso. There are some well-established names on that list, and a couple of guys in various stages of establishing their reputations. Let’s see how they rank for 2014.
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- Paul Goldschmidt – The Diamondbacks first sacker established himself as one of the premier hitters in the game in 2013. This man is a legitimate monster. .302 batting average, .401 on-base percentage. Led the NL in SLG (.551), homers (36) and RBI (125). Goldy showed plenty of patience at the plate with 99 walks. Not impressed yet? How about this: he also stole more bases than any other major league first baseman – 15. The guys in 2nd and 3rd place stole 11 and 7. He might not just be the best offensive first baseman in the NL West, he might be the best in baseball. And yes, I’m familiar with Chris Davis. The Dbacks have found the cornerstone of their offense for years to come.
- Adrian Gonzalez – How many times in the last four years have you thought to yourself “if only the Padres had one big bat in the middle of their order, and everyone else could hit a spot higher or lower in the lineup, everyone would be producing better”? Adrian Gonzalez, the Silver Slugger, was that bat until 2010. Now he’s one of several big bats for the Dodgers. Seven straight years of at least 99 RBI. 40 homers one season. A .338 batting average in another. While playing the best first base this side of Joey Votto. Whether slugging or hitting sizzling line drives, he is consistently producing. For someone else. We miss you, big guy.
- Brandon Belt – The 25 year old began to establish his offensive game in 2013, jumping from 7 to 17 homers while raising his BA from .275 to .289. A huge August and September inspired enough confidence in manager Bruce Bochy, who has a distinct preference for veteran players, to have him hitting in the 3-hole on a team with Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence. His 6’5” 220-pound frame certainly holds the potential for the Giants 1B to blossom into a consistent power source. He also has shown a good patience at the plate with a solid .360 OBP. Only 25, he’s one of the names to watch in 2014.
- Yonder Alonso – The Padres first baseman personifies the 2014 team – full of potential. His minor league numbers – .296/.374/.468 held the promise of a doubles-mashing hit machine, which is what the Reds saw when he had his initial cup of coffee with the team in 2011. His numbers dropped, somewhat predictably, in coming from the Great American Ballpark to Petco Park in 2012, and his two stints on the DL last year with hand injuries impeded his progress. He’s had some streaks in which he’s hit exactly the way we want him to. In July 2012, he hit .290 with 11 doubles, 3 hrs and 19 RBI, slugging over .500. Not coincidentally, Yonder was hitting in the 6 or 7 hole most of that month. The team was healthy (even Carlos Quentin), Grandal and Amarista were producing, Headley was starting to produce just prior to his incredible second-half run, and Yonder was comfortably raking in his low-pressure spot at the bottom of the lineup. Alonso is never going to hit cleanup. He has potential to hit #3, driving in the placesetters at the top of the order. But he’s not there yet. Give him a year or two of success hitting in low-pressure situations, let him build his confidence, and then we might see a Mark Grace/Wally Joyner-like hitter emerge. Will he have that luxury on the Padres? That remains to be seen. Again, it comes down to potential vs production – this time, the production of the hitters around him in the lineup.
- Justin Morneau – No, he’s not 40 years old, although it seems like he’s been around forever. Colorado’s candidate for best first baseman in the NL West will only be 32 on Opening Day, belying his 11 years and 1300 games of experience. And that makes it difficult to predict how good he might be in 2014. Once a lock for 25-35 homers and 100+ RBI, he is 7 years removed from his MVP-season of 2006, and four years removed from his last 100-RBI year. He seems to have established new levels of production the last two years, averaging .263 with 18 homers and 75 RBI. He may get a boost playing at Coors Field, as many have, but it’s likely that Morneau is on the downside of his career, with his best years behind him.
Goldschmidt and Gonzalez are clearly the class of the NL West first basemen right now. And while Yonder Alonso’s production alone isn’t going to lead the Padres to the postseason, his continued improvement will be a key factor in the team’s success.
Next time: Second Base