What's ripple effect of Cronenworth injury?

September 12th, 2021

LOS ANGELES -- The most noteworthy side effect of 's fractured left ring finger was undoubtedly 's return to shortstop.

But in terms of the Padres' lineup construction, that position switch is beside the point. Whether he was in the outfield or at shortstop, Tatis was playing.

It's the knock-on effect of Cronenworth's injury that stings the Padres in a big way. Cronenworth has been one of the Padres' steadiest hitters and their foremost support for Tatis and in their lineup. Consider Saturday night, the first game without Cronenworth. Tatis and Machado went 6-for-8 with all four of the team’s RBIs. The rest of the group went 2-for-26.

Suffice it to say, the Padres need Cronenworth back -- and fast. He’s still dealing with inflammation in that fractured finger but could return before the end of the road trip. Once the swelling goes down, it’ll be an issue of pain tolerance, Cronenworth said Sunday. To that end, Cronenworth was quick to note that he doesn’t grip the bat all that tightly, anyway.

“With Jake, the concentration is going to be on getting that inflammation out of there, which will give him a little bit more range of motion when he’s gripping the bat,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said on Saturday. “But you really don’t know on the pain tolerance. When we get some of that inflammation out, I’m sure when he squares the ball up solid, there’s not going to be much issue. But if you get it off the end of the bat, you get the vibration of the bat.”

The Padres need Cronenworth back, first and foremost because he's an excellent player. He has a slash line of .270/.348/.466 in 136 games, plus a healthy 4.7 bWAR. But there are a few obvious side effects of his absence (unrelated to Tatis’ move to shortstop):

1. The Padres are in a bind against righties
And as it just so happens, the Padres lined up with some pretty tough righties after Cronenworth's injury -- Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer this weekend, plus Anthony DeSclafani and Kevin Gausman during their four-game series in San Francisco. Left fielder filled Cronenworth's spot in the lineup on Sunday, but the right-handed batter is hitting .194 with a .645 OPS in the second half, entering Sunday, and has historically struggled against righties. Switch-hitter , who is better against right-handers, is an option for left field, but he's slumping, too.

2. Who starts against lefties?
Not an issue in the immediate future, but if the Padres match up with a left-hander before Cronenworth returns, they'll have some interesting decisions. For the most part, left-handed batters and sit against lefties, and often does, too. In theory, the Padres would need to start two of those three now. Otherwise, they could start or use both of their catchers with in the infield. In the midst of a tight playoff race, none of those are particularly appealing options.

3. What's up with the bench?
Probably not the most pressing issue right now, but with Cronenworth out, the Padres are thin on their bench. Since rosters expanded, they've chosen to use those two extra roster spots on pitchers. But it's worth wondering whether one of those spots would be better spent on a power-hitting bench bat, perhaps Brian O'Grady or even catcher , who has 15 homers at Triple-A El Paso and is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the organization’s No. 2 prospect.

In any case, the Padres should have an answer on Cronenworth soon enough. The swelling is expected to subside in the next day or two. Then he’ll be able to test his hand. Cronenworth noted that the fracture occurred at the tip of the finger, perhaps portending less of an issue gripping the bat.

If Cronenworth doesn’t land on the injured list before the series opener in San Francisco on Monday, that’ll be a positive sign. (It would be the latest the Padres could wait while still backdating a 10-day IL stint to the day of the injury.)

“We’re going to have to wait and see over the next couple days,” Tingler said. “But the main focus right now is just getting it treated and getting that inflammation out of there.”