Last time we did this, we projected the possible career paths of Anthony Rizzo, a young first baseman thought to be the future of the Cubs at the position. This week, we’re going to take a look at the reason Rizzo is in Chicago in the first place, Yonder Alonso of the San Diego Padres.
Alonso was sent to the Padres from Cincinnati this off-season in the blockbuster trade involving Mat Latos and other prospects. Alonso was drafted by the Reds in the first round (7th overall) in 2008 after a stellar career at the University of Miami, and has had more than enough experience in the minors after having been blocked at first base in Cincinnati by Joey Votto. Had he been with any other team, Alonso would almost certainly have a full major league season under his belt already.
Coming out of college, Alonso was thought to be among the most polished hitters in the 2008 draft, combining a plus hit tool with plus power potential. Despite never hitting more than 15 home runs in any minor league season, the Reds seemed to still believe that the plus power was in Alonso’s bat when they traded him, as they desperately tried to get his bat in the lineup at different positions. Ultimately, Alonso’s defensive limitations at positions other than first base forced the Reds to move him, but not before he hit five home runs in 98 plate appearances during a 2011 late-season call-up, helping to inflate his trade value.
That five home run burst gave the Padres reason to believe that the power Alonso was expected to develop was still in there, despite never having seen it in over 1300 minor league at-bats. Alonso’s 2011 offensive production projects to a 30-homer season if sustained over a full year, something the Padres are hopeful for, and a level that represents the ceiling of Alonso’s power potential.
What we know: Alonso is a plus hitter who limits strike outs and has the potential to be a perennial .300 hitter. He has 20-30 home run power from the left side, but is limited to first base defensively. He is listed at 6’2” 240 lbs in most publications.
That last part is important. 6’2” is an average size for a first baseman, and there have been many players who have manned first base at 240 pounds and up, but there haven’t been too many players who fit both criteria, making Alonso a difficult comp, physically.
In fact, only 12 players since 1961 have played a full season at any corner infield or outfield position while listed between 6’2” and 6’3” and weighing between 235-245 pounds. The only player active last year listed at 6’2” and 240 lbs. was Nelson Cruz of the Rangers.
So we may have a tough time finding comps for Alonso that resemble him physically, but we’ll see what we can do.
The best case scenario for Alonso’s prime is a few .300/30 seasons. Unlike in our comparison with Rizzo, who had two 25-homer seasons in the minors and a year where he hit .335, our projections with Alonso are based as much on scouting reports as they are on production. Alonso has had a nice minor league career, but has never hit above .296 in a season and never hit more than 15 home runs. A more likely scenario is that he peaks in the 25 home run range, so we’ll set our search for left-handed hitting first basemen who hit .300 and between 25-30 home runs, with less than 100 strike outs. Three players since 1961 have had more than one such season:
Helton can be eliminated as a comp because of the stretch in his career where he averaged 42 homers a year. Alonso won’t be doing that.
Cecil Cooper is actually a decent fit, and had a nice career, with a consistent 12-year stretch where he hit over .300 eight times and had three 20-homer seasons and two 30-homer seasons, with a career high 32 in 1982. There is a realistic chance we could say the same thing about Alonso’s career when it is finished. But there are two main issues I have with Cooper as a comp.
- He never walked, taking more than 40 free passes in a season just twice during that stretch and posting a .339 OBP during that span despite a batting average of .303 during the same time.
- He weighed 165 pounds.
Alonso should walk 50-75 times a season in his prime, and hasn’t been 165 pounds since he was a teenager. Cooper is out.
The last player on this list, Kent Hrbek, is a great fit, however, for a number of reasons. Now before Padres fans get upset, it’s important to remember what kind of player Hrbek actually was.
For his career, Hrbek posted a career .282/.367/.481 slash line, with nine 20-homer seasons and a 34-homer campaign during the Twins 1987 championship run. If Padres fans could take 293 career homers and more career walks than strikeouts as a guarantee from Alonso’s career right now, don’t you think they’d take that offer?
Hrbek is even a good comp for Alonso physically. Listed at 6’4” 200 lbs on his Baseball-Reference.com page, Hrbek is taller than Alonso and apparently significantly lighter, but anyone who remembers Hrbek playing would surely guess that he was heavier than 200 pounds. Hrbek was a big guy and while he and Alonso won’t be confused for one another at any point, they are at least still in the same mold.
So I like Hrbek as a best-case scenario for Alonso’s career. Maybe Alonso will end up hitting for a higher average like some scouts project, especially with the large gaps at Petco Park, but I just haven’t seen it in what has been enough of a minor league timetable to judge.
But what if Alonso never has a better year in the majors than he ever had in the minors? That’s not unrealistic to expect. Scouts expect more out of Alonso’s bat than we’ve seen thus far, but what if it’s not there? What if what he’s done in the minors is about the same as what he’ll do in the majors?
If that’s the case, he should still be a pretty good player.
Here are Alonso’s minor league numbers:
|2009||22||3 Teams||3 Lgs||A+-AA-Rk||CIN||84||340||295||33||86||24||0||9||52||1||1||41||46||.292||.374||.464||.838|
|2010||23||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AAA-AA||CIN||132||566||507||69||147||36||2||15||69||13||3||56||92||.290||.362||.458||.820|
His slash ranges of .290-.296/.362-.374/.458-.486 show that he’s been pretty consistent as a professional, and if that’s his career line in the majors the Padres are in good shape.
So lets search for first basemen who hit between .290 and .310, and between 20-30 home runs and at least three-quarters as many walks as strikeouts.
Only four left-handed hitting first basemen have done it more than once since 1961:
Olerud and Brett can be taken out because I'm not expecting Alonso to ever flirt with .400 over the course of any season. I'm not crazy about Joyner as a realistic high-end comp because he mixed too many single-digit homer seasons in over the course of his career.
I do love Alvin Davis as a comp, however. "Mr. Mariner" was a solid major league hitter, fan favorite, and a Rookie of the Year winner before his career came to an abrupt halt at the age of 31. I'm not predicting that for Alonso, but what does work as a comparison is the 7-year prime of Davis' career, during which he made an all-star team and twice received MVP votes.
During the stretch from 1984-1990, Davis averaged .289/.391/.468 while slugging 28 doubles and 21 home runs a season and walked more than he struck out. Essentially, it's a milder version of Kent Hrbek. David had less power but was a similarly good hitter, but he never hit above .305 and never hit 30 home runs.
And there's a good chance Alonso has a very solid career without doing either.
At this point, we're still putting a lot of faith in the development of Alonso's power. In all honesty, with the exception of his brief stint in the majors last season, we haven't seen Alonso display even 20 home run power. That, coupled with playing at Petco Park, doesn't bode well for Alonso blasting his way to stardom. What very well may happen, however, is that Aonso is, at most, a 25 home run player, who becomes a 20-homer guy in San Diego, who also hits lots of doubles.
In his only minor league season, Alonso hit 36 doubles. Petco Park allows for more doubles than most parks thanks to its spacious power alleys. There is a realistic chance that Alonso becomes a 40 double but 20 homer player.
So let's look for left-handed hitting first basemen who hit between .275-.300 with more than 30 doubles but less than 25 home runs.
Olerud is out once again, and Mattingly is out for the same reason. I just don't see Alonso competing for batting titles.
Bill Buckner is interesting, but he never hit more than 18 home runs in a season. I think Alonso has more power than that, and if he doesn't, I'm blaming Petco more than anything. Joyner is out for the same reason as he was last time. Those single digit seasons just don't happen very often anymore, especially at first base, and if they do happen these days, you rarely get more than one more season to fix it.*
*I'm talking to you, James Loney.
But the last one, Chris Chambliss, is a good comp for Alonso's realistic low-end.
Chambliss too had his share of powerless seasons, but the reason I like his career for this project is the five year stretch he put together from 1976-1980. During at time, Chambliss averaged 31 doubles and 16 homers per season, while hitting .283 during that time. Chambliss didn't walk as much as I expect Alonso to do, especially during that period, but he did have four seasons where he walked over 50 times, so he wasn't a complete free swinger.
Chambliss never hit more than 20 homers, which he did twice later in his career. I believe Alonso is a solid 20-homer guy, but playing at Petco may limit it to that.
So, we now have a good base with what should be considered good news for Padres fans, all three of our comps thus far were solid big league players.
But what if it all goes wrong? What if the power never really develops, he doesn't hit .300, and the one more thing we haven't really addressed happens.
Alonso has struck out in almost 25% of his big league plate appearances.
His sample size is small enough that it's not a major reason for concern. After all, there is an adjustment period to hitting major league pitching. But what if that adjustment doesn't take place. A 25% rate is high, but acceptable for a big-time power hitter. But Alonso doesn't project to be that. He can't strike out 25% of the time if he's only going to hit 20 home runs a year.
So let's look now for left-handed hitting first basemen who hit under .300, less than 20 homers, and struck out in at-least 25% of their plate appearances.
No one has ever done it.
Let's try 20% of plate appearances, and make it less than 25 home runs.
Four players have done it more than once:
Adam Laroche isn't a terrible comp, but he does have that one 30-homer season. Thats enough to rule him out of our worst-case scenario. The same can be said for Mike Epstein.
The other two, Brogna and Stevens are both interesting for different reasons. I like Brogna as a comp for this situation, but I do believe Alonso will have more long-term success than Brogna did. Plus, Brogna was a skinny defensive wizard, neither of which can be said about Alonso.
Lee Stevens, however, was a big-bodied clunker at first base, and while Aonso isn't that bad now, in our worst-case scenario he'd probably be getting fat and losing athleticism, so I'll take the artistic liberty of assuming that happens here.
Stevens had a stretch where he was a productive major league player, but he never hit more than 24 homers in a season, while striking out like he did. His five-year prime of .271/.337/.486 was good for an OPS+ of just 106 during the height of the Steroid Era, while he averaged 114 strike outs and just 22 homers a season during that time. Just a year after this stretch, he was out of baseball.
So when it comes down to it, there is little chance Alonso fails to become a productive major leaguer of some kind. At best, he could have a long career as an above-average, and borderline all-star, much like we determined with Anthony Rizzo, but accomplished in a different fashion. More realistically, he could have a shorter major league prime that should fall between being productive at a just below all-star level to solid regular first baseman. At worst, Alonso should be a good platoon hitter with a 5-7 year prime of getting everyday at-bats.