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Reyes emerges as the Padres' middle man

Outfielder comes on strong as rookie, now has claim on cleanup spot
@AJCassavell
March 18, 2019

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There's some legitimate star power in the heart of the Padres' lineup this year. Manny Machado, Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer anchor a revamped offense that could be the best in San Diego in more than a decade. It's an offense filled with big names and big-name

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There's some legitimate star power in the heart of the Padres' lineup this year. Manny Machado, Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer anchor a revamped offense that could be the best in San Diego in more than a decade.

It's an offense filled with big names and big-name prospects -- or at least young players like Austin Hedges, Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, who fit that top-prospect label recently.

Sitting squarely in the middle of it all is Franmil Reyes, who is decidedly neither of those things.

Given his hulking 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame, it's not easy to overlook Reyes. But the baseball world did precisely that. Reyes never even so much as cracked the Padres' top 30 prospects list. Following the 2017 season, he was left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, and all 29 other teams passed.

As recently as last spring, Reyes was a complete unknown. Now? He could very well find himself hitting cleanup in, arguably, the most exciting Padres offense since Tony Gwynn played Reyes' position.

"I can't tell you how exciting it is to be part of this group right now," Reyes said.

He's certainly earned the right to hit fourth. During the second half of last season, Reyes was the team's best hitter, and it really wasn't close. He batted .315/.383/.537 with 10 homers after his second-half callup.

Most impressive, in the eyes of the Padres, was the way Reyes dealt with his early failure. During his first stint in the big leagues, Reyes' average hovered around .200. He struck out 39 times in 96 plate appearances. The projections, it seemed, were proving true. Reyes' swing was too long and had too many moving parts for him to truly capitalize on his immense power.

Except Reyes was too cerebral a ballplayer to let that narrative define him. He adjusted his stance. He tinkered with his hands. He cut down on the length of his swing, figuring if he could just make contact, he'd still be able to hit the ball very, very hard.

"He's done a tremendous job of taking ownership with himself and his at-bats," said Padres manager Andy Green. There's a thirst and a hunger to get better, and an ability to learn that will end up separating him."

Even through Reyes' early struggles, that hunger was there. During a game in early June against Atlanta -- a game you probably remember for the fan who chugged her beer after a foul ball landed in it -- the Padres trailed, 14-0, with two outs in the ninth.

In a long game in a long season, Reyes could be forgiven for taking a couple pitches off. Instead, he mashed one of the longest homers in the ballpark's history -- a 455-foot blast over both bullpens.

"That's a really good encapsulation of his intent in every at-bat, no matter what the circumstance," Green said, recalling the moment. "That's going to make him the best he can possibly be as a hitter."

For precisely that reason, the Padres don't expect regression from Reyes, even though he seemingly came from nowhere last season. There aren't many players who can routinely hit a baseball as hard as Reyes does, and he practically cut his strikeout rate in half, to 21.7 percent, during the second half. He entered play Monday with an .896 OPS and an 18 percent strikeout rate this spring.

As things stand, Reyes seems destined for the cleanup spot in San Diego. It's unlikely he plays every single day in a crowded Padres outfield, where he'll share reps with Myers, Renfroe, Margot and Franchy Cordero.

But when he plays he'll be asked to do damage, and his strong on-base skills make it very likely he hits ahead of Myers and Renfroe in the cleanup spot. He’ll hit behind Machado and Hosmer.

When Machado, batting third, hit his first homer of the spring earlier this month, he was quick to note that A's starter Aaron Brooks must have feared loading the bases for Reyes.

"It's really fun seeing my teammates here in Spring Training, crushing it," Reyes said. "It's something that's got me really motivated for the season. We're going to do a lot of damage in this lineup."

Expect to find Reyes' name right in the middle of it.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.