The Padres anticipate improvement in 2018, even if their 70 wins entering Tuesday had surpassed outside expectations. In the quest for progress, the personnel will shift at certain positions.
“Very few things,” manager Andy Green said, “are going to be locked down going into spring next year.”
That includes the everyday job at second base, though what has been accomplished this season will not be easily dismissed. For weeks now, Green has identified three players as his biggest surprises of 2017: rookie pitcher Dinelson Lamet, who started Tuesday’s game here; left fielder Jose Pirela, who went from crushing Triple-A pitching to batting third for the Padres; and Carlos Asuaje, who, unlike the other two, does not possess a standout tool.
The same lack of measurables help account for Asuaje’s inclusion on the list.
“He’s played beyond my expectations, which is probably what most people who’ve coached or managed him in the past have said about him at some point in time,” Green said recently. “He’s one of those guys who exceeds expectations. I think the work he put in this offseason positioned him very well to have a good year this year, and he’s gone out and had it. He’s going to have every opportunity to lock down a consistent role going forward.”
Since Asuaje’s promotion from Triple-A El Paso on June 23, the Padres have been a collective surprise, going 41-33 before Tuesday. Their rookie second baseman, typically hitting second, has been a key figure in a sustained run of competitiveness.
“It’s been a good season overall,” Asuaje said. “I think just as a team we’ve been playing well for a while now. As an individual, I’m pretty happy with the way I’ve been playing. Offensively, to me at least, I’ve been playing all right, but I could be doing way better as far as offense goes, in my opinion.”
That side of the ball will be a focus this offseason; through Monday, Asuaje was hitting .271 with a .333 on-base percentage and four home runs. Asuaje, who is listed at 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds, mentioned bunting and baserunning as facets on his agenda list.
“Obviously, I’d like to hit 40 home runs, but that’s just not realistic,” Asuaje said. “So just getting better at little things that I think adds value to the team on a daily basis.”
In the meantime, Asuaje has allayed concerns elsewhere. About this time a year ago, Green highlighted an area for improvement, telling Asuaje that his defense at second base was not major league-caliber.
Twelve months later, the 25-year-old has been one of the Padres’ steadiest fielders. When opening-day second baseman Yangervis Solarte returned from the disabled list in July, Green carved out an everyday utility role for the veteran. Asuaje had proven himself too valuable to demote.
“I think it was just one of those things where I happened to be playing well and he came back and he was playing well too,” Asuaje said. “Our management and people up front are going to do what’s best for the team. It’s not necessarily what’s best for me or what’s best for him, what’s best for an individual.
“If I was playing bad at the time, I’m sure I would’ve been sent down in two seconds. For me, it’s just one of those things where it helps the team win and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
That type of mentality has earned Asuaje praise stretching back to his career at Nova Southeastern University. Meanwhile, his desire to make personal progress has impressed others, including a slugger who has played like an MVP candidate this season.
“He’s always had passion for baseball and always wanted to be good,” said Arizona’s J.D. Martinez, a fellow Nova Southeastern alum who trains with Asuaje during the winter. “He reminds me of myself a lot, his dedication to hitting and how hard he works.”
Though the baseball-card numbers don’t jump out, Asuaje, Green said, consistently supplies some of the Padres’ most professional at-bats, a quality that shines alongside teammates who are often quicker to concede. Before a recent cold spell, Asuaje was hitting nearly .300 when behind in the count.
“He doesn’t quit, and I love that element about him,” Green said. “He’s a guy who’s improved as much as any infielder as I’ve seen, and he’s done that on his own in the last year, and he deserves credit for that. You don’t doubt guys that carry those types of characteristics. They work incredibly hard, and they have a ton of self-confidence and don’t yield no matter what the circumstance.”
Next spring, the circumstance could be a crowded picture at second base. If the Padres do not trade Solarte this offseason, they will return two regulars who are not easy outs at the plate. Top-100 prospect Luis Urias, expected to make his big-league debut sometime next year, shares similar qualities. Ryan Schimpf, who disappeared amid a bad season, still has the power to reemerge.
“I think what’s hard about it is there’s so many moving parts between now and opening day, it doesn’t make sense for me to handicap that,” Green said. “(Asuaje) is squarely in our plans, and he’s put himself there by the way he’s played. That’s all we can really ask for.”
Rival scouts largely see Asuaje as a potential standout off the bench. Then again, more than a few trained observers did not expect he would contribute as much as he has this season.
“I don’t really care about competition,” Asuaje said. “I don’t really pay any attention to that stuff. That’s not my decision. I don’t really mind any of that. They can bring in whoever they want — it doesn’t really affect me. For me, it’s just going out there and doing my job to the best of my abilities.”
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