Inertia and Versatility: Yonder Alonso and Kyle Blanks

Yonder Alonso is the starting first baseman for the San Diego Padres. Always a highly regarded prospect, the Padres received Alonso in December 2011 as part of the return for Mat Latos. The Padres then traded Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner in January 2012, and Alonso has been the team’s starting first baseman ever since.

Kyle Blanks was selected by the Padres in the 42nd round of the 2004 rule 4 draft out of Moriarty High School in Moriarty, New Mexico. He worked his way through the Padres minor league system, and in 2008 was the Padres’ Minor League Player of the Year. After the 2008 season, he was ranked for the first and only time in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, coming in at #50. That ranking made Blanks the Padres’ top prospect that offseason, coming in ahead of Mat Latos and Jaff Decker.

Blanks had a problem in 2009. Adrian Gonzalez was the Padres’ starting first baseman. Adrian was an All-Star and Gold Glove recipient. Blanks couldn’t supplant that. He instead moved to the outfield in order to get his bat into the major league lineup. He proved to be a competent outfielder, and when Adrian was traded and the job of starting first baseman opened up for the team, he was never healthy enough to be counted on in the role.

The Padres were forced to look elsewhere. First they tried Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu. After that disaster, they promoted Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo struggled as a rookie and was traded away, but once again Kyle Blanks wasn’t healthy enough to compete for the job, missing almost the entire 2012 season, Yonder Alonso’s rookie campaign.

Now Blanks is healthy. So is Alonso. Both are performing well enough to start. Blanks has a 145 wRC+ in 23 games. Alonso has a 119 wRC+ in 43 games. What makes Alonso the starter and keeps Blanks on the bench? Inertia and versatility.

Yonder Alonso hasn’t lost the starter’s job, so he remains the starter. That’s inertia. Alonso won the job over weak competition to start 2012, and now he’s locked in to the position until he gets hurt or traded. Padres GM Josh Byrnes also has a lot riding on Alonso. Byrnes picked him over Rizzo after the Latos trade, a controversial move that still leaves many fans angrily shaking their heads. As Alonso (and Andrew Cashner) goes, so does Byrnes’ reputation in San Diego.

Kyle Blanks has played himself into the lineup. So much so that it’s quite possible Jesus Guzman will be the odd man out when Cameron Maybin comes back from the DL. Blanks and Guzman do the same things, the Padres don’t need both, and quite simply Blanks does almost anything Guzman can do better.

What Blanks hasn’t done is secured himself the opportunity for 600 plate appearances in a season. Unfortunately for him, the thing that got him into the majors is also the thing that keeps him from being a starter. Kyle Blanks is versatile.

Blanks can play first base, left field, and occasionally right field, which he’s done more of late with the Norf/Venable platoon shifting to center field for the time being. For a player as tall and bulky as he is, he’s quite athletic, and while he’s not been a great fielder in right field, he’s actually been a positive defender in left. The Reds put Alonso in left in 2011, looking for a way to get his bat in the lineup down the streth, and it was an unmitigated disaster.

The Padres will have several roster and depth chart decisions to make soon. Clayton Richard can’t keep making rehab starts forever. Cam Maybin is set to begin a rehab assignment soon. Yasmani Grandal is but seven games away from roster eligibility. Someday, even Logan Forsythe’s foot might start feeling better.

When it comes time for those decisions to be made, the role of who starts at first base won’t be one of them. Maybe it should be, but it won’t be. Yonder Alonso has the job and can’t take any other role. Kyle Blanks doesn’t have the job and has a way to get his bat in the lineup without playing the position. In this case, Alonso has inertia working for him while Blanks has versatility working against him.

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  • So what are you advocating? Blanks to first and Alonso to the bench? Platoon at first? A new GM*?

    *Don’t bother answering that one.

    • I’m not advocating for anything. It’s more of an esoteric examination on why each player is where they are…but if the Padres were to trade Alonso and Blanks took over as starting first baseman, I wouldn’t be sad.

      • esoteric might not be the word I was looking for. English is hard.

  • I’m all for #FreeKyleBlanks. But not at the expense of Alonso. The lineup is better with both.

    • How does that work, long term? The lineup is even better with Quentin, Alonso, and Blanks all in it, Blanks is a negative value defender in RF, and Maybin will be back at some point. The lineup may be better with both players in it, but it’s not a tenable situation in the long term.

      • They could trade Quentin, move Blanks to left where he is better suited, Cam in center and Denoable in RF. But why give up on Alonso when he is clearly producing?

      • Guzman is the odd man out, as the team has 3 other players who do about the same thing but better. The problem is two of them have some injury risk, although Guzman isn’t the kind of player who’s worth a spot on a roster just in case.

      • Guzman should definitely be the odd man out in the short term. That he’s not playing well this year makes it easier.

      • Quentin has a no-trade clause. Maybe he’ll agree to be traded, maybe he won’t. And I’m not saying to give up on anybody. I don’t think Kyle Blanks will be freed anytime soon.

  • Melvin

    Guzman’s on a major league deal, right? I’d like to see him DFA’d as he doesn’t have a place on the team with Blanks healthy. Blanks then gets spot starts at first and right, and all of Quentin’s days off in left.

    edit: oh wait, I don’t think Guzman has enough service time yet, he should have options

    • I thought the reason the Giants got rid of Guzman was because he was out of options.

  • Humanure

    Yonder Alonso is very valuable to this team now and going forward. Blanks is homegrown, and easy to root for because of that and his overcoming horrible luck; but I think Yonder is a safer bet if we’re gambling the Padres’ future. Blanks’ ability in the OF is key because Quentin and Maybin will surely continue to play themselves and hurt themselves out of the lineup for stretches during the next 2 years. Sorry Jesus; thanks for the memories!

  • Does Alonso have much trade value? I’d love to see Blanks at 1B full time.

  • Chris Kelly

    Great piece. I would love to see Quentin go to a contender…AL as for the DH option. The problem is that Blanks’ big frame in LF may be just as unreliable as Quentin’s health. There’s just no way to get them all in the lineup. Credit to Blanks for producing despite zero consistency in the lineup. Toughest job in baseball.

  • briankoke

    You say Blanks is a positive defender in LF, but insinuate that he’s not in right. I’m assuming you are talking about UZR. If so, judging a players defense at a particular position based on 78 innings of work is foolish. Cabrera has been a negative defender at SS for most of the season. Anyone watching Padres games on a regular basis knows that Cabrera’s defense has been incredible. UZR is interesting, but it’s grossly overused. Eye balls are still the best judge of a players defense and these eye balls have seen Blanks do just fine in RF this year. He’s nothing special out there, but he certainly hasn’t embarrassed himself either. Adopting the DH would solve this problem, although, I’m not sure having too many good players is a problem.

    • The specific area of defense that the eyeballs get wrong is what UZR does really well: range. As athletic for his size as Blanks is, he doesn’t have the range to play RF. Also, Everth makes very good plays, but he also struggles with his range. I do acknowledge, of course, that we’re dealing with a very small sample of Blanks in RF, but there’s a reason for that.

      • briankoke

        Proponents of UZR usually use a minimum of a 3 year sample of players regularly playing that position and I’ve still seen that sample size produce results that would make you scratch your head. I understand what UZR is supposed to measure. It’s a flawed statistic that’s grossly overused and this is a good example of that. 78 innings is meaningless as my Cabrera example points out. Cabrera’s range this year is as good as anyone’s. Overall, well done article. Good look at the situation.

      • I disagree with your conclusions, but it’s not worth arguing over. Like I said before, there’s a difference between not a disaster and positive value. Blanks will certainly not be a positive value defender in RF. Any advanced stat or scout would agree with that. Phrases like “hold his own” and “adequate” might get used, but that’s damning with faint praise.

      • briankoke

        I’ll take his adequate defense and big bat in RF all day. I guess it’s just easier to look at a stat and pretend it’s something it’s not. Tell me why I’m wrong about UZR’s flaws and inconsistencies. Not wanting to argue sounds like a copout to me.

    • Also, you can be an adequate defender and still be a negative value defender. Jedd Gyorko at 2B comes to mind. I think Blanks is likely worse in RF than Gyorko is at 2B though.

      • briankoke

        Players with fantastic range can also post negative UZR. Carlos Gonzalez comes to mind. No way should he ever post a negative UZR in LF. Again, flawed and extremely inconsistent. There isn’t a perfect way to judge defense and UZR isn’t even the best method. It’s an interesting tool, but people need to stop using it like it’s the end all be all way to judge a players defense or even just range.

  • Supposedly Guz also plays third. At the moment the only backup to Headley is Gyorko. But Guz is a hero in San Diego because of one half-season (2011).

    • Guzman thinks he can play 3rd. He can’t actually play 3rd. It’s really scary.