HomeTrending MLB NewsA Whole Team Out of Shortstops? The Padres Are Trying

A Whole Team Out of Shortstops? The Padres Are Trying

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David Frerker-USA TODAY Sports

With a new baseball season comes a fresh set of box scores to pick apart daily, but the ink on the first one wasn’t even dry, so to speak, when it lodged itself in my brain at an ungodly early hour on March 20 and stuck there like a flashing neon sign: EIGHT SHORTSTOPS! On Opening Day in Seoul against the Dodgers, the Padres fielded a lineup that except for its battery of Yu Darvish and Luis Campusano was entirely made up of shortstops past and present; by contrast the Dodgers had resorted to placing six-time Gold Glove-winning right fielder Mookie Betts at short to accommodate their own uneven roster. To this baseball-addled mind, it felt like a collision of four decades worth of reading about scouting philosophies and sabermetrics, from Dollar Sign on the Muscle and Future Value through Bill James’ defensive spectrum and the basic construction of WAR, with its positional adjustments. It took a remarkable confluence of circumstances to arrive at this arrangement, which to be fair was never intended to be permanent, though manager Mike Shildt has used that same lineup more often than any other since then.

Shortstops tend to be some of the most gifted and athletic players on the diamond. As Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel put it in Future Value, the requirements for the position include “an above-average arm, plus speed/range, plus footwork, and average hands/action.” A very high percentage of right-handed players were shortstops at some point as amateurs; indeed, playing the position at that stage is “a strong indication of a player’s all-around athleticism,” as Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper wrote last month when noting the Padres’ increasing stockpile. Most of those amateur shortstops migrate across the defensive spectrum to less demanding positions as their bodies grow and they progress through the minors and into the majors, with the development of their offensive skills helping to determine where they might find homes. As James observed long ago, the more difficult the defensive position, the lower the bar for offensive production.

Here’s the lineup in question:

Making (Pretty Much) the Whole Team Out of Shortstops

PositionPlayerMeasurementsAgeLast Game at SSLevelMLB @ SSMiLB @ SS
CLuis Campusano5’ 11”, 232 lbs25.500
1BJake Cronenworth6’ 0”, 187 lbs30.22022MLB61367
2BXander Bogaerts6’ 2”, 218 lbs31.52023MLB1338346
3BTyler Wade6’ 1”, 188 lbs29.42023MLB102514
SSHa-Seong Kim5’ 9”, 168 lbs28.52024MLB192776*
LFJurickson Profar6’ 0”, 184 lbs31.12018MLB104413
CFJackson Merrill6’ 3”, 195 lbs21.02023AA0178
RFFernando Tatis Jr.6’ 3”, 217 lbs25.32021MLB242242
DHManny Machado6’ 3”, 218 lbs31.72019MLB236203

* = Total games at shortstop in KBO League, not affiliated minor leagues

That’s a collection of parts that don’t yet look like they make up a whole. The lineup shows the contours of the boom-and-bust cycle weathered by general manager A.J. Preller, who has committed nearly $1 billion to Machado (11 years, $350 million after the six-time All-Star opted out of his original 10-year, $300 million deal), Tatis (14 years, $340 million), and Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million) alone. While the Padres reached the NLCS in 2022 after knocking off both the 101-win Mets and 111-win Dodgers, Preller’s vision hasn’t translated into full-blown success; after winning just 82 games with a club record $255 million payroll ($280 million for tax purposes) in 2023, he’s been forced to retool — most notably by dealing away late-’22 acquisition Juan Soto — and may be nearing the end of his rope.

Long story short, Preller invested a whole lot of money while packing the Padres’ roster not just with stars, but with stars of a certain type (most of them in line with the trend toward increasingly large but athletic men playing the position), then moving them around as they began to crowd each other. With the team now stretched thin, he’s filling in the gaps with light-hitting utilitymen and an interesting experiment. It’s worth a look at how the Padres got to this point.

The Fringe Guys

Likely the most transient member of this lineup is Wade. A former Yankees prospect, he grazed the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list at no. 101 in 2017, following a .259/.352/.349 season at Double-A Trenton and then a stint in the Arizona Fall League learning to play the outfield. Vice president of player development Gary Denbo and others in the organization envisioned Wade as the Yankees’ answer to superutilitymen Ben Zobrist and Brock Holt, but his complete lack of power and failure to make consistent contact prevented him from realizing that lofty goal. Seven years and four DFAs later, the 29-year-old lefty swinger is the owner of a career .220/.297/.302 (68 wRC+) batting line with a 1.7% barrel rate and 24.7% strikeout rate in 726 plate appearances. Signed to a minor league deal in November after getting just 55 PA with the 112-loss A’s last year, Wade has started five of the Padres’ nine games at third base in place of Machado, who’s still recovering from October surgery to repair his right extensor tendon in his elbow. Of the four games Wade hasn’t started, two apiece have been started by 24-year-old righty rookie Eguy Rosario (who has pinch-hit for Wade three times and who himself has played 130 minor league games at shortstop) and 23-year-old lefty-swinging third base prospect Graham Pauley, who finished last season with 20 games at Double-A, but whose infield defense was described as “currently untenable.”

Also on the fringe is Profar, who goes further back with Preller than any other Padre, having been signed out of Curaçao by the Rangers on July 2, 2009, when Preller was the team’s director of professional and international scouting. By 2013, the 20-year-old Profar was the game’s top prospect, but with a trio of All-Stars — Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, and Adrián Beltré — blocking his path to regular playing time in the Texas infield, he was limited to utility duty as a rookie. His trajectory shifted once he lost nearly two full years to right shoulder injuries, first a torn teres major that cost him all of 2014, then a torn labrum that required surgery and limited him to a rehab stint in late ’15. He’s tasted only intermittent success since, finishing with least a 100 wRC+ and 1.0 WAR just three times in the last seven years while more or less playing himself out of the infield; in 2022–23, he logged one inning at second base and 151.1 at first.

After hitting 15 homers with a 111 wRC+ and a career-high 2.5 WAR in 2022, Profar opted out of the final year of his three-year, $21 million deal with the Padres, then went unsigned into mid-March ’23 before catching on with the Rockies. His season was such a disaster that the team released him in late August, and while he enjoyed a bit of September success upon being picked up by San Diego, he finished with a 76 wRC+ and -2.0 WAR. Yet he’s back on a one-year, $1 million-plus-incentives deal, starting in left field because of the team’s lack of outfield depth.

The Cornerstone

As for the other six (former) shortstops, they’ve basically been shoehorned into the lineup by whatever means necessary in a process that dates back to 2019, when the team signed Machado to a 10-year, $300 million deal with the intention of returning him to third base after he had spent most of the previous season at shortstop for the only time in his major league career.

When the Orioles drafted Machado out of a Miami high school with the third pick in 2010, he had already played shortstop for the legendary 2009 under-18 U.S. national team that won a gold medal at the Pan American Junior Championships. Machado played almost exclusively at shortstop in his three minor league seasons (the first of which was only five games long). By the spring of 2012, the 19-year-old phenom was the no. 11 prospect in the game according to Baseball America, drawing comparisons to Alex Rodriguez but also concerns that he might physically outgrow the position. Meanwhile, the Orioles already had a shortstop they were quite satisfied with in 29-year-old J.J. Hardy, who was coming off a 30-homer, 4.5 WAR season and who had recently signed a three-year, $22.5 million extension. Machado began that season at Double-A Bowie, but when the Orioles, who had gone 69-93 in 2011 — their 14th consecutive losing season — found themselves in contention, they called up Machado in early August and stuck him at third base, where he had just two games of professional experience. He quickly proved to be a spectacular defender, a major upgrade over incumbent Wilson Betemit, who was soon lost to a wrist injury anyway. The Orioles won 93 games and claimed a Wild Card spot in 2012, and the Machado-Hardy left side remained in place through two more playoff appearances over the next four years before the latter’s body broke down.

During Hardy’s injury-related absences in 2015–16, Machado filled in at shortstop, playing a total of 52 games there. After Hardy retired following the 2017 season, Machado returned to his old position, first with the Orioles, who were amid a tear-down phase, and then with the Dodgers, who traded for him on July 18, 2018. Though he produced 7.0 WAR in his walk year, Machado’s metrics at shortstop weren’t great (-10 DRS, -6.5 UZR, 1 RAA), and by the time he signed with San Diego in February 2019, the 20-year-old Tatis was on the cusp of the majors, ready to make the jump from Double-A. Back at third, Machado has made two All-Star teams and had two top-three finishes in the MVP voting while emerging as a team leader — so much so that the Padres lavished a new extension on him after he opted out of his original deal at the end of the 2022 season. As for when he’ll return to the field — thereby trimming the shortstop total down to a reasonable (?) seven, with Machado replacing Wade at third and a better hitter than Wade starting at DH — the timeline is tentative at best, “possibly by the end of April.”

The Prodigy

While Machado didn’t have a great first year with the Padres in 2019, Tatis was a revelation on the offensive side, hitting .317/.379/.590 (151 wRC+) in 84 games before a stress reaction in his lower back ended his season in mid-August. His defensive metrics were another story, in the red across the board (-3 DRS, -5.8 UZR, -12 RAA); while Machado’s were somewhat better during a 37-game stint at shortstop when Tatis missed nearly six weeks due to a hamstring strain, the Padres opted to restore their previous configuration during the shortened 2020 season. Both players performed well; Tatis’ defensive numbers even improved across the small sample, and the team went 37-23, making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, albeit via an expanded field.

With the infield getting increasingly crowded due to the arrivals of Cronenworth (in a December 2019 trade with the Rays along with Tommy Pham) and Kim (from the KBO in the winter of 2020–21), the Padres inked Tatis to a massive extension in the spring of 2021, then experimented with him in center and right field while he was in the midst of a monster 42-homer, 158 wRC+ season that again included mostly below average defensive metrics at shortstop (-7.5 UZR, -6 DRS, 2 RAA). The plan to go forward with him as an outfielder in 2022 was interrupted by Tatis’ misadventures, first a fracture in his left wrist that required surgery and may have occurred during one of the multiple motorcycle accidents he was involved in while in the Dominican Republic that offseason, and then an 80-game PED suspension that landed while he was on a rehab assignment. When he finally returned last year, it was as a right fielder, and while his offense wasn’t up to his usual level, his defense was elite. He led all right fielders with his 29 DRS, 13.8 UZR, and 10 RAA, taking home not only a Gold Glove but the NL Platinum Glove.

The Swiss Army Knife

Drafted as a second baseman out of the University of Michigan — where he pitched and played first, second, third, and left field but not shortstop — in 2015, Cronenworth spent most of the next four seasons playing short in the Rays’ organization, albeit with healthy servings of second base and third base. He even pitched in seven games at Durham in 2019, and might have continued to do so if not for MLB’s dumb rule changes, which included one that set a 20-inning bar for someone to be considered a two-way player; otherwise, he could only enter when his team was winning or losing by more than six runs.

As a rookie in 2020 he hit a robust .285/.354/.477 (126 wRC+) while playing mainly at second base, but he started at shortstop in the three games Tatis did not, and served as a late-inning replacement in eight others. During Tatis’ initial outfield foray, it was Cronenworth who took over at shortstop, starting 31 of 34 games and performing right around average according to the metrics.

He held the second base job in 2022, and was a Gold Glove finalist while hitting for a 110 wRC+ with 4.2 WAR, but the arrival of Bogaerts the following winter pushed him to first base, a position where the Padres had long struggled for offensive production due to their misguided belief in Eric Hosmer, who netted 0.4 WAR in four and a half seasons before being traded. Unfortunately, Cronenworth’s offense has declined since the move, putting the Padres at a deficit offensively; he slipped to a 92 wRC+ and 1.1 WAR last year.

The (Kiwoom) Hero

The infield got even more crowded in 2021 with the arrival of Kim, who had starred as a shortstop for the Nexen (later Kiwoom) Heroes in the KBO. When he first came stateside via a four-year, $28 million deal, he scuffled at the plate, hitting .202/.270/.352 (71 wRC+) while backing up at second, short, and third. He filled in for Tatis during a COVID-related IL stint in May, but was mainly consigned to pinch-hitting duty during Tatis’ outfield experiment.

Once the Padres committed to making Tatis an outfielder, it was Kim they chose to play shortstop for 2022. He rewarded their faith by doing standout work (10 DRS, 4.9 UZR, 4 RAA), becoming a Gold Glove finalist while improving to a 106 wRC+. He accommodated the team by moving to second base with the arrival of Bogaerts in 2023, winning a Gold Glove while hitting 17 homers with a 112 wRC+ and 4.4 WAR. In February, the Padres decided they would be better with the smaller, rangier Kim at shortstop and Bogaerts at second, a move that not only makes sense on paper but seems geared to keeping Kim around past his current deal (he has an $8 million mutual option for 2025).

The Interloper

Signed out of Aruba just shy of his 17th birthday in 2009, Bogaerts played exclusively at shortstop until he reached Triple-A four years later. Following a quick initiation at Pawtucket, the Red Sox squeezed the 20-year-old prospect into their lineup as a third baseman alongside shortstop Stephen Drew, and won the World Series with that combination. When Drew opted out, Bogaerts began the 2014 season at shortstop; he shifted back to third when Drew belatedly re-signed, but when the veteran didn’t hit a lick, the Red Sox foisted him on the Yankees in a July 31 trade and reinstalled the rookie at short. Over the next eight seasons he emerged as one of baseball’s best shortstops, hitting for a 125 wRC+ with 34.0 WAR (second at the position) from 2015–22 and signing a six-year, $120 million extension in ’19. Even so, he accumulated -50 DRS and -25 RAA in that span.

Bogaerts exercised an opt-out in his contract after 2022 and signed a massive deal with the Padres with the understanding that a position switch might happen down the road. He was solid defensively in his first season in San Diego (-4 DRS, 2 RAA, 0 UZR) while hitting for a 120 wRC+, but during spring training, the Padres convinced him to swap places with Kim. “I signed here as a shortstop,” Bogaerts said in late February. “But to me, I just live and die baseball… I’m just doing it in the best interests of the team, and in the end, I feel like I’m at peace with moving off.”

The Latest Experiment

Given the flimsiness of their outfield and the logjam in the infield, the Padres decided late last year to try Merrill, their 2021 first-round pick, in the outfield; as Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin wrote when they placed him 30th on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list, his below-average hands suggest that he’ll permanently move off shortstop eventually. Merrill played five games in left field at Double-A San Antonio, and the Padres prepared him for the likelihood of continuing down that path. They tried Merrill in both left and center field this spring, and the 20-year-old (whose birthday is April 19) impressed them enough to open the season at the latter spot. So far, he’s hit a respectable .240/.321/.440 while starting seven of nine games there and taken over after pinch-hitting for the light-hitting José Azocar in the other two. If Kim leaves after this season, Merrill could be back in the shortstop mix, but for now, this is how the Padres are rolling.

Will it all work? The early returns are mixed, as the Padres are just 4-5. Their offense has been robust, scoring 5.78 runs per game (sixth in the NL), but their shaky pitching has allowed an even six runs per game (10th). It’s far too early to get a read on defensive metrics, but for now we’ll note that the team’s .651 defensive efficiency is 11th, 24 points below the league average. Stay tuned.

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