Trade Lets Yonder Alonso Go Home To First
PEORIA, ARIZ.—If anyone asks Yonder Alonso what part of his European vacation last December was the most memorable, the answer won't be the sights and tastes of Spain or the soccer match played by his favorite futbol team, Real Madrid.
No, the No. 1 scrapbook moment was the phone call informing Alonso he'd been traded to the Padres.
"It was nuts," said Alonso, a first-round pick of the Reds in 2008 who last year batted .330 with five home runs for Cincinnati in a sparse 88 at-bats. "I was very surprised."
Once the 24-year-old absorbed the news, his shock gave way to excitement. For in a sense, the trade had returned Alonso to his true baseball home: first base.
Set at first with Joey Votto, the National League MVP in 2010, the Reds sought a young ace, so they traded Alonso, righthander Edinson Volquez and two advanced minor leaguers—catcher Yasmani Grandal and reliever Brad Boxberger—to acquire Mat Latos from the Padres in a four-for-one exchange.
Votto's presence in Cincinnati had diverted Alonso to ill-fitting positions—including his first pro appearance at third base—after the Reds called up the lefty hitter, who batted .296/.364/.478 in two seasons with Triple-A Louisville.
While he survived his time in left field, first base is home for the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Alonso and where the Padres told him he would drop anchor. "I was going to a team where I had a chance to play," Alonso said.
As it happened, the Padres already employed a young first baseman, 22-year-old Anthony Rizzo, at the time they acquired Alonso.
New Padres general manager Josh Byrnes made his preference known 20 days later, when he sent Rizzo to the Cubs for reliever Andrew Cashner as part of a four-player trade. Byrnes said he wasn't bearish on Rizzo's future, and he even called it a good debate among major league evaluators as to who was the better prospect, Alonso or Rizzo. But he knew the previous Padres administration loved Rizzo, and key members of that regime, including former GM Jed Hoyer, had moved on to Chicago.
For Byrnes, it was more a matter of hitting style. Alonso's penchant for lining the ball to all fields, he said, should align better with San Diego's pitcher friendly home, Petco Park, than Rizzo's upper-cut stroke, which reminds scouts of veteran big leaguer Adam LaRoche.
"Alonso was appealing because of his solid track record of hitting," Byrnes said in spring training. "We also felt he could fit the ballpark and be a consistent, quality at-bat type of hitter."
Not every hitter has the chops to cope with Petco Park, where well-struck blasts are blunted by coastal air and swirling currents. Lefties in particular are challenged by the ballpark whose deep expanse in right-center, known as Death Valley, is a graveyard for home run ambitions.
The Padres won't fret if Alonso is absent from the league's statistical leaderboards.
"I wouldn't frame expectations with numbers," Byrnes said, "but we do expect him to give consistent, quality ABs and to drive in runs for us."
Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres' all-star first baseman from 2006-10, was the rare lefty who sustained power hitting at Petco. As Alonso played for the University of Miami and ascended through the Reds farm system, which major league hitter did he most admire?
"Adrian Gonzalez," he said. "He's always been such a good hitter. He uses his hands so well. He's so simple and he keeps everything so quiet. That's why I like him so much."
Not that Alonso should be thought of as the next Gonzalez—particularly in the field, where Gonzalez has won three Gold Gloves—but there are intriguing parallels.
Both have gorgeous, inside-out lefty swings that propelled them to top 10 overall picks in the draft, with Gonzalez going first overall to the Marlins in 2000 and Alonso impressing scouts even as a high school freshman in Miami by batting .405 with 30 RBIs.
Both had to deal with all-star first basemen blocking their paths initially, as Mark Teixeira did to Gonzalez with the Rangers, and both tried the awkward move to the outfield. Yes, that was Gonzalez in right field for the Rangers in 2005, a one-game experiment.
Finally, both found a trade to the Padres providing them a chance at long-term prosperity.
"I am just very happy to be with the Padres," Alonso said, echoing Gonzalez's sentiment six spring trainings ago.
Gonzalez, like Alonso, was traded from a hitter-friendly home ballpark. But it was the move to Petco, one hitting expert said, that spurred his progress.
"It was good for Adrian because it forced him to stay on the ball," Tony Gwynn said.
A .338 career hitter who played his entire 20-year career with the Padres, Gwynn never played in Petco but considers it far from unconquerable. "There's a lot of grass out there," he said.
Gwynn saw a few Reds games last season and remembers being impressed by Alonso's swing and calmness. When Alonso took batting practice at Petco and said he enjoyed seeing so much grass, Gwynn took it as a good sign.
"The majority of guys would say, wow, this place is huge," he said. "It's all a mindest. If you're a line-drive hitter, you're going to love Petco. If you're trying to lift the ball out of the park, you're going to have trouble."
"Line drives are the way to go. The minute you get to the ballpark there, you see how it is," he said. "You see there is a lot of grass and there are lot of places to get hits there. My goal is to hit line drives. If they catch it, so be it. Hit it a little harder. I'm not going to sit here and complain about it and whine. Just have good at-bats and things work out."
Tom Krasovic is a freelance writer based in San Diego.