The Padres sent lefthander Eric Lauer and middle infielder Luis Urias to the Brewers for Grisham and righthander Zach Davies on Nov. 27. While Davies was already an established major league starter, Grisham was only beginning to show hints of his potential after a breakout season that began in Double-A Biloxi and finished as a part of Milwaukee’s playoff roster.
Grisham didn’t exactly come out of nowhere—he was the Brewers’ first-round pick in 2015—but little about his minor league production before 2019 pointed to his sudden surge. Still, the Padres saw something in Grisham and made acquiring him a priority.
“Grisham was one of those guys who, really dating back to the 2015 draft, honestly we probably would have taken this guy if we didn’t do the Shields signing and lose our first-round pick,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said. “We had a history of him for a long period of time. He was a guy who we had targeted for a number of years and could never really make it line up.
“We had amateur history. We had pro history. He was a targeted guy for us for a few years. That was also one that (special assistant to the GM) Dave Cameron in the last year went from ‘Yeah, I like Grish’ to ‘We need to get Grish. We need to go get this guy.’ ”
Although they missed out on drafting him, the Padres certainly kept up with Grisham’s progress as he moved through the Brewers’ system. In doing so, they saw flashes of the skills they coveted in the draft and believed that a few tweaks to his approach would make them show up with more frequency.
“He had a couple of rough years performance-wise (with Milwaukee), but we always kind of liked the baseball player,” pro scouting director Pete DeYoung said. “We liked his ability to control the strike zone and as he kind of broke out last year at Double-A and Triple-A with the Brewers, we felt like he was kind of tapping into that finally.
“In the minor leagues he was maybe a little too passive at times. He got into too many deep counts. We felt like he kind of made some adjustments, started hitting the ball a little more out front and the power kind of took off.”
The Rays drafted Cronenworth in the seventh round in 2015 out of Michigan, where he pitched, played first base and second base. In 2019, at Triple-A Durham, Cronenworth returned to those roots and moved around the diamond while mixing in a few pitching appearances.
On one particularly memorable day against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, Cronenworth neutralized rehabbing all-star outfielders Aaron Judge (groundout to shortstop) and Giancarlo Stanton (swinging strikeout) before handing the ball to top pitching prospect Brendan McKay. In the other two games of the series, Cronenworth went 5-for-9 with a double, a triple and two homers.
When it came to making the deal, part of the process involved realizing the Rays had a glut of middle infielders in their organization and that Cronenworth might be flying under the radar.
“I think we recognized that (the Rays) had a lot of depth . . . with Wander (Franco) and (Vidal) Brujan and (Taylor) Walls and (Joey) Wendle and different guys,” DeYoung said. “As we started kind of going through different names, we felt like if we were going to give up a prospect like (Edwards), we wanted someone in return to kind of fill that void.”
After the season, the Padres got more looks at Cronenworth while he played for Team USA in the Premier12 Tournament, tracking him with the team from Arizona to Mexico to Japan. The in-person looks, done by pro scouts Mike Venafro, Dominic Viola and Keith Boeck, combined with analytical approval from Cameron and director of baseball research and development Adam Esquer, cemented the Padres’ intrigue.
The team freely admits it did not project Rookie of the Year candidacy for Cronenworth, but they thought he and Grisham shared a common trait of being players who could contribute on both sides of the ball while possessing excellent makeup.
To get Grisham and Cronenworth, the Padres relied on a deep group of pro scouts with a varied set of backgrounds, then combined their views with those from the people in their analytics department. Both sides worked together to zero in on Cronenworth and Grisham, two young players who might not have been top of mind when it came to the game’s potential impact players but who have played that way in 2020.
National writer Kyle Glaser contributed reporting.