The San Diego Padres, after years of building one of the most formidable farm systems in the sport, have begun leveraging leveraging assets to forge a monster in San Diego. Settling three deals that would each have been headline news over the span of just 36 hours, Padres general manager AJ Preller transformed his team into one of the most terrifying squads in baseball. The acquisition of Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Victor Caratini, followed by the signing of Korean star infielder Ha-Seong Kim, set his team up for success in both the upcoming season and seasons to come, it’s hard not to admire the sheer boldness of his opportunistic dealings.
While fans of the sport can afford to be tourists ogling at the developments unfolding on the west coast, industry professionals don’t have the same luxury. Other teams have to seek opportunities to profit off the Padres’ wheeling and dealing.
Standout rookie Jake Cronenworth, who came to San Diego in a mostly overlooked trade last offseason, has basically been rendered expendable to the team by their signing of Kim Ha-Seong. He has the defensive skills to be a starting shortstop somewhere but with Fernando Tatis Jr. there, and Kim slated to play second base, there just isn’t much room for Cronenworth. The Tigers should take advantage of that situation and bring him to Detroit.
In the spirit of transparency, I’ve been looking for an excuse to write this article for the better part of 18 months, as Cronenworth was one of my (admittedly many) prospect crushes during his time with Tampa. The move makes more sense now than ever, though, and he’ll be easier to shake loose before the Padres roster is finalized.
After a remarkable college career at the University of Michigan as a two-way player, Cronenworth was drafted by the Rays in the 7th round of the 2015 draft. He played himself into prospect status despite never showing particularly eye-popping tools as a minor leaguer. He was a wrecking ball in Triple-A during the 2015 season, hitting .334/.429/.520 for the Durham Bulls. However, on the verge of his 26th birthday and hopelessly blocked by Willy Adames at the major league level, the Rays were willing to entertain the idea of letting him go when the Padres wanted to include him in the Tommy Pham trade.
Free to seize major league playing time, Cronenworth won the battle for everyday second base reps over fellow newcomers Jurickson Profar and Jorge Mateo. As a mainstay in the Padres’ lineup, the rookie continued terrorizing opposing pitchers. His final numbers — .285/.354/.477 with 4 home runs in 53 games — were enough to plant him firmly in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
Although he was eventually outvoted by Brewers relief sensation Devin Williams, his successes were enough to land him a spot on the FanGraphs updated Top 100 prospects list and he graduated as the 91st ranked prospect.
Cronenworth is a great fit for the Tigers’ needs
It’s not a secret that the Tigers lack answers up the middle long term. Sure, Niko Goodrum works fine as the light end of a double play tandem, but if the Tigers want to be competitive soon, they’ll need to provide him with a strong partner. However, between Willi Castro’s defensive shortcomings and Sergio Alcántara’s woeful lack of presence at the plate, there isn’t an in-house option to confidently plug into that role. Feel free to hope that the Tigers are primed to sign Francisco Lindor or Carlos Correa next offseason, but until then, dealing for a player like Cronenworth makes a lot of sense and retains payroll flexibility to address all needs as the team starts to come together.
Cronenworth is a remarkably well-rounded player who doesn’t come with the stark weaknesses of the Tigers internal options. As a rangy and instinctual defender, he’s an excellent second baseman, but he came through the minors as a shortstop and can play either position well. That would provide the Tigers with the flexibility to move him as needed to create rest days while accommodating backup players whose production may be lopsided and need a more specific role.
There’s also little in the way of indicators that his offensive production will plummet in year two as a major leaguer. Cronenworth’s batting average on balls in play, a key warning sign for unsustainable production, was high, but not concerningly so. His BABIP-adjusted line of .263/.332/.455 would have still been acceptable as a rookie. He walked at a hearty 9.4 percent clip and struck out in 5.4 percent fewer of his plate appearances than the league average hitter.
After reading all of this, you may be licking your chops, and rightly so. However, there’s also the lingering question of why on earth the Padres would trade such a valuable player. After all, he’s productive, still has five years of team control, and all three of his minor league options remain intact.
Despite that, the Padres are in the rare situation; Cronenworth is worth more to the team in trade than he is on their roster as mere insurance. Despite his promise and performance, it would be a struggle to find playing time for him. It’s not as if he’s going to win a roster spot over the likes of Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis, Jr., who are established superstars in their own right. It’s also tough to justify playing him over Kim, who will be paid a stout contract and will probably need regular major league at-bats to get up to speed stateside. Indeed, Preller continues to emphasize that Kim will be their primary second baseman.
Justifying the (likely high) price tag
Cronenworth came to San Diego as a nice secondary piece in the Tommy Pham deal with the Rays, but he’s not going to be acquired easily this time around. The Padres have all the leverage in the world. It’s not as if they’re desperate to rid themselves of a talented young player on a favorable contract. There are conflicting reports on whether they’d be willing to try him in an outfield spot — Dennis Lin reported that it was a possibility, whereas Kevin Acee reported that it wasn’t in the cards at this time.
Regardless, the point remains that there are options available to the team if they decide to hang onto Cronenworth. In other words, should the Tigers come calling about his availability in trade, the asking price isn’t likely to feel like a steal.
On the other hand, the fact remains that rebuilding teams absolutely must be willing to part with their prospects in trade to get over the hump and build a winning MLB team. Detroit hasn’t been willing to deal for major league talent yet, but if General Manager Al Avila was serious about transitioning the Tigers into the “building” phase of their rebuild, he’ll need to dish out some prospects sooner than later. No one is expecting current ownership to dole out huge contracts with the wild largesse of Mike Ilitch in the coming years. There may be other solid options to pursue in a trade —Rockies infielder Brendan Rodgers comes to mind —but Cronenworth would be ideal.
Constructing a suitable trade package
Constructing the specifics of a hypothetical trade is usually a fool’s errand, but for our purposes, let’s just try to develop a ballpark value in terms of players or prospects to give up in the surprise event that Avila decides to pursue Cronenworth.
Fair warning — I’m about to throw a whole bunch of numbers your way.
As a rule of thumb, a player is generally worth approximately $8 million per fWAR. Cronenworth played at a 4.2 fWAR pace last season, but projection systems are skeptical that he’ll be that productive in the upcoming season. Using the average of his 2020 pace and Steamer-projected 2.2 fWAR as a baseline, the Tigers will need to part with $25.6 million in value to make it worth San Diego’s time.
Approximately two years ago, the prospect team at FanGraphs did an extensive study examining the monetary value of prospects. I won’t bore you with the details, but that basically means sending them a single prospect in the low end of the 55 FV range (think of prospects in the 60-70 range on top 100 lists) or a package of two prospects just outside the top 100, likely with a third, lower-ranked one as a kicker.
Based on value alone, sending away Isaac Paredes and Joey Wentz in exchange for Cronenworth seems fair. However, the Padres aren’t likely to pounce on that pair. After all, Paredes will soon face the same problem in San Diego that makes Cronenworth tradable in the first place. On the other hand, Paredes is several years younger and isn’t quite major league ready just yet. He could easily take advantage of Pacific Coast League parks in 2021 to show more of the home run power he’s lacked thus far, and become an excellent trade chip for them down the road. There’s also the option to bring a third team in on the deal, but those kinds of trades are tough to pull off and we haven’t seen Al Avila pull anything like this off during his tenure.
More likely, the Padres would prefer to use such a trade to improve the club right now, as they are about as “all in” as it gets this offseason. Unless they’re willing to trade Spencer Turnbull or or deal from their stable of quality relievers, the Tigers just don’t have much to offer in that regard. Paredes and Turnbull would get the job done, but that’s a pretty steep price to pay. Combining Paredes with reliever Jose Cisnero and another quality prospect outside the Tigers big five could possibly be enough to persuade San Diego. But again, the Padres hold the high cards here and can probably find a package elsewhere that they prefer. Unless the Tigers decide to move one of their top pitching prospects, finding a package that works for both sides is not going to be easy.
At the end of the day, the cost for a player like Cronenworth will be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s also difficult to imagine a better fit for the Tigers. He’s affordable, young, and will be easier to acquire than most players with his kind of production. Avila needs to be willing to play ball and get loosen his death grip on the farm system — Cronenworth is already the kind of player that you can only hope most of the prospects turn into.
Perhaps the Tigers do plan to spend on a shortstop next offseason, but unless they’re willing to start seriously ramping up the payroll, a huge contract like that which will be required to compete for the top free agents could ultimately be a debilitating burden on their ability to build a complete roster. Much wiser would be to pursue a good, cost-controlled player like Jake Cronenworth. It’d be a gutsy move, which isn’t really the style of the current regime, but playing it safe doesn’t win championships.