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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