Jake Cronenworth Trade Continues To Pay Big Dividends For Padres
SAN DIEGO—The Rays don’t lose many trades. They’ve built a perennial postseason contender on that fact, overcoming limited financial resources and a middling draft record to become the defending American League champions and the current leader for home-field advantage in the AL playoff race.
But no one bats 1.000, in any aspect of the game. Increasingly, it’s become clear the Padres bested the Rays in the deal that brought Jake Cronenworth to San Diego.
Cronenworth hit a game-tying, two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift the Padres to a stunning, 4-3 comeback win over the Phillies in 10 innings on Saturday night.
With Phillies ace Aaron Nola one out away from wrapping up a one-hitter, Cronenworth laid off three straight pitches off the outer half of the plate to pull ahead 3-1 and launched Nola’s next offering 419 feet over the center-field fence, just out of the reach of Phillies center fielder Travis Jankowski. The blast tied the score 3-3 and sent Nola from the game after 117 pitches.
The blast was Cronenworth’s 19th home run of the year and came at the most opportune time possible for the struggling Padres. With the club mired in a 1-8 skid and in danger of falling out of the National League’s second wild card spot with a loss, Cronenworth instead kept the Padres alive.
“Jake’s just a special player,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “Even in the dugout, (Padres bench coach Skip Schumaker) kind of looked out me … and said ‘Crony can get him.’ He’s one of the guys, if Nola tries that two-seamer in, Jake can keep that pitch fair and get it in the air. Obviously Jake got to a 3-1 pitch and he hit it and you felt pretty good about it.
“Jake, to keep that game alive to tie it up, (that’s) one of the biggest hits he’s had, and he’s had some big ones.”
Cronenworth’s resume continues to get more impressive by the day. He seized the Padres starting second base job last year and finished tied for second in National League rookie of the year voting. He earned his first all-star selection this season and recently slid over to shortstop in place of Fernando Tatis Jr., where he has played so well there is talk internally in the Padres organization about keeping Cronenworth at shortstop and Tatis in the outfield long term.
In 175 career games, just over a full season’s worth, Cronenworth has hit .279 with 43 doubles, 23 home runs and 81 RBIs while shining defensively at first base, second base and shortstop. He even showed off his pitching ability when he struck out Mookie Betts swinging earlier this season during the Padres’ wild opening matchup against the Dodgers.
“I don't think there's one thing I can pinpoint,” Cronenworth said. “I think it's the ability to be comfortable moving around the field. It’s something that I've done a ton in my career … I think it's just something that I got comfortable doing and when I am bouncing around between those positions, I kind of know what I need to do to get myself ready for that night.”
Even ignoring his defense and one-time pitching contribution, Cronenworth’s offense alone makes him a star. His .837 OPS since the start of the 2020 season is the highest among all National League second basemen. The next closest player, Braves standout Ozzie Albies, is more than 30 points behind him.
“I think he’s a Gold Glove second baseman, and I think the numbers are going to back that up at the end of the day. I think he’s a Gold Glove first baseman, and then seeing what he’s able to do at shortstop right now, and then obviously he’s hitting in the four-hole,” Tingler said. “What can you say? He continues to play well. He continues to improve and he’s so consistent and stable.”
Pham was coming off a 20-20 season. Renfroe had just hit a career-high 33 home runs. Edwards was a top draft pick who hit .322 in his first full season and was about to enter the BA Top 100 Prospects.
Cronenworth, a seventh-round pick out of Michigan in 2015, won the International League batting title at Triple-A Durham that season and showed promise as a two-way player by touching the mid 90s in brief stints on the mound. But he was also 25 and not considered one of the Rays top-tier prospects, especially with the system flush in middle infielders.
Padres scouts Keith Boeck and Dominic Viola saw more in Cronenworth, however, and led the push for the Padres to acquire him. Boeck, in particular, tracked Cronenworth closely when he represented Team USA at the Premier12 tournament during Olympic qualifying in Japan. Boeck argued passionately during offseason meetings that Cronenworth was more than just a potential utilityman, the industry consensus at the time, and that the Padres needed to acquire him in any deal with the Rays.
In a very short time, Cronenworth has not only proven Boeck right, but become the clear-cut best player in the trade. Pham has struggled with injuries and, while hot recently, has hit .241/.351/.397 in two seasons with the Padres. The Rays designated Renfroe for assignment after one season. Edwards has hit .291/.380/.364 at Double-A this year and gives the Rays a chance to somewhat salvage the deal and get something out of it.
Cronenworth, meanwhile, is an all-star who has proven to be one of the top hitters at his position as well as one of the most versatile and talented defenders in Major League Baseball.
Barring an unexpected turn of events, the deal is going to go down as a rare loss for the Rays.
For the Padres, Cronenworth’s acquisition is a gift that keeps on giving, and did once again on Saturday night.
“That kind of situation is something you always think about,” Cronenworth said. “Two outs, bottom of the ninth, trying to tie the game or win the game.
“I’m just happy I hit it over the fence.”