Ever since Andy Green let Christian Bethancourt take the mound and then rumors started swirling that he might actually be tasked with a utility role this season, it’s been apparent that the Padres are open to thinking “outside the box.” When you combine progressive thinkers in the dugout and in the front office, a roster with flexible players and odd fits, and a season that isn’t shaping up to be truly competitive, there’s an opportunity to try some interesting ideas.
If you don’t follow John Gennaro and Craig Elsten on Twitter and listen to their podcast from time to time, you should. They’re enthusiastic San Diego sports fans and members of the San Diego sports media who carry optimism and an open mind, which makes for a fun read and an even more fun listen. John has a podcast called “Generally Speaking”, and together they have a podcast called “Make the Padres Great Again” (iTunes)(Stitcher). The latter title started to sour on them, since it started as a gag referencing a presidential candidate that nobody was taking seriously... and then he won and it all became far too real. They considered changing the name, which they have since decided against, but one idea gained a lot of traction: “Keep the Padres Weird.” The twitterverse got a hold of the idea, and @BBTB2018 made some really clever graphics for the cause. After some discussion, they decided to keep the original title since the long-term goal is to have a great baseball team in San Diego. However, the notion that the Padres are an unusual team has led to a bunch of interesting conversations, and some of them might really happen.
Christian Bethancourt: The Hybrid Player Unicorn
I don’t know who coined the term used above, but I’ll give credit to Jodes. Christian Bethancourt was once one of the best catcher prospects in the game. His cannon arm and immense raw power are the tools that make scouts drool. A relative bust in Atlanta, he was traded to the Padres and given the backup role in 2016, a job that he capably filled, but not representative of his former top prospect status. With Austin Hedges taking the reins as primary catcher and Rule 5 selection Luis Torrens fighting for a roster spot, Bethancourt’s chances of staying with the organization may be greatly enhanced if he can add value elsewhere on the field.
When he took the mound last May against he Mariners, it was a garbage time side show as is often the case when position players are asked to pitch. Then he did this. When a non-pitcher to casually toe the mound and fire 96mph strikes with movement from a free and easy arm motion, people take notice. Then he did it again in June. These were his only two pitching appearances of the season, but the coaching staff was intrigued enough to give him off-season work in the Panama Winter League, where he pitched, played outfield, and served as designated hitter (he didn’t catch). Last season he also made twelve appearances in the outfield, seven of them starting assignments. Now the team seems to be preparing him for a super-utility role as catcher, relief pitcher, outfielder, and more. By carrying a portion of the load of the bullpen and the outfield corps, he could help the organization carry one, two, or all three of the Rule 5 draftees, which could reap long-term rewards.
Hunter Renfroe: Centerfielder
We all know about the power and the arm, but Hunter Renfroe is more athletic than you may think. He’s quick enough to have been used as the backup centerfielder in El Paso the last two seasons, making ten starts there in 2016. The Padres also have two premium centerfield defenders in Travis Jankowski and Manuel Margot, and don’t forget that Margot’s arm grades out well. With the expansive dimensions of some MLB parks, it’s been postulated that a configuration with the rangy speedsters in the corners could allow Renfroe to shade deep, allowing him to deploy his cannon arm on balls hit in the gaps, which could potentially save bases throughout the season. Conversely, Renfroe could shade shallow for less powerful hitters, essentially adding a rover to the infield. Andy Green mentioned this idea to Dennis Green earlier this spring:
According to the manager, one scenario could see Renfroe and his powerful arm deep in center, flanked by speedsters Jankowski and Margot in the corners. That surely would go against conventional wisdom — most expect Renfroe to start in right, with Margot and Jankowski duking it out for center — but even if the formation never leaves Peoria, it might not hurt to try.
Forget “Starters”, how about an opening act?
The weakest element of the current Padres roster has to be the starting rotation. But what if you re-think your whole concept of a starting rotation? Most of the starting pitcher candidates on the roster have experience in relief, and have also shown a recent track record of difficulty with getting through a roster a second or third time. What if your “starter” was set up to face the lineup only once or twice, with another pitcher lined up behind him? This approach, sometimes called “piggybacking,” has been used sparingly in the past, but rarely does a roster break camp with such an odd mix of pitchers. Brian Grosnick of BaseballProspectus dug in to the theory a while back, and he presents a compelling case of why this may be the best strategy for the Padres to open the season. The benefits are tangible:
- Pitchers can use closer to “max effort” versus reserving energy to make it through 5+ inning. Therefore, they can attack hitters more aggressively, which could help keep early inning scoring down. It’s been proven that teams score the most runs in the first inning. That makes sense since the lineup is set up for maximum effectivity. Put your best pitcher for that day on the mound to start the game rather than saving him for higher-leverage situations later in the game.
- Rostered pitchers don’t have track records of reliably turning lineups over more than once or twice.
- Rostered pitchers haven’t pitched a full season’s load of innings in recent years.
- Substituting a lefty for a righty eliminates any platoon advantage a lineup may have.
- Pitchers can make more appearances through the season.
With Jhoulys Chacin and Jered Weaver as the only tenured career MLB starters in the fold, finding some flexibility in the mix may help get through a long season. Mixing starters into shorter service could also be a way to get fringe players like Tyrell Jenkins and Zach Lee into the mix, as well as reducing innings counts on rehabbing players like Cesar Vargas and Robbie Erlin. It’s worth noting that three of this year’s starter candidates (Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, and Jarred Cosart) pitched less than 70 total innings last season, so expecting a full 30-start season from any of them is incredibly ambitious.
This strategy makes even more sense when you start to think about roster flexibility. A handful of the guys who would be considered for this kind of role have at least one option season remaining, which means that they can be promoted to MLB and then optioned to the minors two weeks later throughout the season, over and over. When service time (Luis Perdomo and Walker Lockett) is an issue, or if players need to work on adjustments between starts (Lee and Jenkins), they can go spend time in El Paso or San Antonio instead of having to be prepared for high-leverage situations in games that really don’t matter as much as their long-term development.
It’s Hip to be Weird
2017 is a season of rebuilding and transition. We know right now that this team won’t win the NL West unless some biblical plagues sweep across the division. Why not try some odd strategies? If they shift all over the place and run the bases like mad men, could they save some runs on defense and earn some extra runs on the bases? Maybe by midseason the rotation will settle down and some normalcy will resume, but in the meantime, why not get the most out of every appearance? Don’t you want to see Hunter Renfroe nail a runner at home on a force out? Let the kids have some fun and maybe the coaches will discover some interesting wrinkles in the data. I’m all for experimentation this season. Andy Green is the analytical mind to find a way to make it work, and he’s the leader needed to get the guys to buy in to it. I’m on board. Let’s Keep the Padres Weird!