Padres Sign Profar to Play, Well, Some Position Presumably

When the Padres traded for Jurickson Profar before the 2020 season, they had a hole at second base. By the time the season started (give or take a week), Jake Cronenworth had filled that hole. But luckily for the Padres, Profar was flexible. He played the outfield for the majority of the season, more than doubling his career innings played total on the grass, and backed Cronenworth up at second while putting together the best batting line of his career. In a shortened season with heightened injury problems, his flexibility was exactly what the team needed.

On Friday, the Padres and Profar agreed to reunite, with San Diego signing him to a three-year, $21 million deal that includes opt outs after each of the first two seasons. But while Profar is headed back to southern California, what role he’ll play there remains undecided. A Padres team without many holes has spent the offseason filling in what cracks it has, leaving precious little space for more cooks in the kitchen — or so it seems.

One of the greatest unknowns facing NL teams is the DH rule. Will it come back next season? Opinions vary, and whether you can give an extra player at-bats changes roster construction significantly. The pre-Profar Friars straddled the gap between building for an extra hitter and for traditional rules. Ha-seong Kim, their prize position player signing this offseason, currently profiles as a super-utility player who starts on the bench. He could fill the DH position, but using a middle infielder (Kim is a shortstop by trade) there feels wasteful. Meanwhile, the team’s two corner outfielders, Tommy Pham and Wil Myers, are both mixed in the field. Either of them could slide to DH — Pham played DH during his tenure in Tampa — if the team could find a suitable defensive replacement.

Myers put up poor defensive numbers in 2020, largely on the back of his throwing arm. He was roughly average in every other phase of defense, but the arm was enough to sink him to a pro-rated seven runs below average per UZR. That’s not disqualifying by any means, but upgrading there, or at least giving Myers regular rest while keeping his bat in the lineup, would be a boon.

Pham is harder to peg. He was a tremendous corner outfielder in St. Louis, but Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric thought he was one of the worst fielders in the game in his full season with Tampa Bay. We haven’t seen enough data on his time with the Padres, given that he only played 149 innings in the field last year, but that leads to an even bigger consideration: giving Pham regular rest might help him with the nagging injuries that have plagued him in recent years.

All of that only makes sense if the team can use a DH. If pitchers are hitting, Pham and Myers are too important offensively to use as less than everyday players. That can change — Pham has been hot and cold, and Myers had a rough 2019 that could always be just around the corner — but for now, giving them everyday at-bats seems like a given.

If there’s a DH, Profar’s role is easy to figure. He’ll function as part of a three-man rotation with Pham and Myers that covers that position and the corner outfield slots. He also provides extra infield depth, and in a season full of unknowns, extra depth never hurts. At $7 million per year, that’s a bargain for a near-everyday player, and it’s also a good platform for Profar to rebuild his market. He’s still only 27 and coming off his best year on a per-PA basis. A year or two of showing that he can handle outfield corners could help him ascend to the heights some predicted for him as a prospect.

The fact that Profar has to play this super-utility role at all is a testament to the twists and turns his career has taken. After developing slowly in Texas — he debuted as the youngest player in the major leagues in 2012 but missed two seasons due to a shoulder injury — he finally broke out in 2018, only for the Rangers to trade him to Oakland that offseason. He then put together an average-ish season in the Bay before the A’s, cost-conscious as ever, sent him off to San Diego before his last year of arbitration.

Profar’s game at the plate is built around a tremendous feel for contact. He’s not particularly adept at distinguishing balls from strikes — he swings at slightly more pitches out of the zone and slightly fewer in the zone than average — but he makes up for it by rarely missing. In 2020, he made contact on 81.1% of his swings (league average is 75.3). That was an excellent performance, and also his lowest contact rate since a 17-PA cameo in 2012.

That contact rate is key to Profar’s greatest offensive skill: avoiding strikeouts. It sounds a little reductive, but if you strike out only 14% of the time, it’s a lot easier to be good at hitting. Profar hasn’t always been so strikeout-averse, but neither was this year some fluke. If he can keep that going, he can produce below-average results on contact and still be valuable at the plate.

Below average on contact, you say? Profar’s 3.2% barrel rate in 2020 was one of the worst in baseball, and his career-high 6.5% rate in 2019 was still below the league average of 7.4%. He falls short in every hard-hit metric imaginable: maximum exit velocity, percentage of balls hit 95 mph or harder, barrel rate, dynamic hard hit rate — pretty much anything you can think of.

Given this weakness in Profar’s game, he looks like a good bet to join the ground ball revolution, so much so that Justin Choi highlighted him as a potential convert in his look at the phenomenon. What does this mean? Profar simply doesn’t get great results when he elevates. Slug is in the air, or so they say, but if you can’t slug, that doesn’t hold true. Since 2015, Profar has compiled a .275 wOBA when he hits a fly ball or pop up. The league as a whole sits at .318. Being 45 points below average in wOBA is no way to live, so why live that way?

In 2020, Profar hit a ton of grounders, ending up with the second-highest GB/FB ratio of his career. Grounders aren’t good — he posted an even worse wOBA on them than on that lacking fly ball sample — but they’re less of a problem when your air results aren’t great. Profar’s batted ball profile is such that what he’s really hunting is line drives, of either the double off the wall or flared single to right variety, and it would hardly be a surprise if a flatter swing helped produce those. More fly balls certainly isn’t a blanket solution for everyone.

I don’t want to act like some kind of swing savant here, because I honestly don’t know the answer. I can tell you that 49% of the time that Profar hits the ball 100 mph or harder, it’s on the ground; the league average is 44%. Twenty-eight percent of his hardest-hit balls are 20 degrees or higher, as compared to 35% for the league as a whole. In other words, his hardest contact comes disproportionately on grounders.

What does this mean for 2021? To me, it means that short of some unexpected changes, Profar isn’t likely to break out to a new tier of excellence. This isn’t the kind of offensive performance you look at and think “oh yeah, this is just the beginning.” In fact, he didn’t really break out even in 2020, despite the career-high wRC+. It turns out that small samples lead to outliers. Here’s Profar’s 50-game rolling average wOBA over his career:

That’s not to say that 2020 wasn’t a good season, or that we should completely ignore it. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before, however, which means it’s hardly surprising that Steamer and ZiPS both project him for a 99 wRC+ next year. That’s not really the kind of bat you’d like to play in an outfield corner, even if Profar made it work in 2020.

The Padres and Profar both likely know that. In an ideal world, he’d be a starting second baseman somewhere, not the fourth-best middle infielder on a team with an embarrassment of riches at second and short. That doesn’t mean that $7 million to use him all across the field doesn’t make sense for San Diego, but it does mean that with more certainty about both Profar’s skill level and how baseball will look in a post-vaccine world, his best spot might not be in San Diego.

To that end, the pair of opt outs in the contract are a useful safety valve. If Profar puts up a 3 WAR season with solid batting stats, or has a huge gain in walk rate that pushes him to a new level of offensive capacity (just making things up here), well, that kind of player probably doesn’t want to be a backup outfielder. If Kim and Cronenworth impress so much that there’s simply no room at the inn, Profar can judge his market and set out for greener pastures.

While I didn’t expect the Padres to bring Profar back, I certainly see the wisdom behind it. Flexibility and depth are valuable, particularly for a team in the Padres’ position. Profar’s spot might not be obvious right now, but San Diego was a few injuries away from using Jorge Mateo and Brian O’Grady as everyday outfielders. Turning that weakness into a strength — or at least something neutral — seems like a decent use of money.

As for the opt outs, they do carry value, but Profar’s contract is the type of player option that the Padres shouldn’t sweat writing. The most expensive player options to write are on long-term contracts where a change in the player’s talent level today has knock-on effects for years to come. They’re also worst when the money is far from a floor — it’s hard to lose more than $14 million in value on a deal when you’re only paying $14 million, for example.

All this considered — and truthfully, this is a lot of considering for a fourth outfielder — this seems like one of those deals where both sides walk away happy even though neither side is overjoyed. Profar gets a little money, a little optionality, and a chance to pick up where he left off last year. The Padres get insurance, lowering their odds of having their aggressive offseason undone by injury or circumstance. Seems reasonable enough to me.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

What role does Profar play if there’s no DH?

3 years ago
Reply to  jssherm

Back up all over the diamond

Tanned Tom
3 years ago
Reply to  carter

That’s Kim’s role.

3 years ago
Reply to  Tanned Tom

And Cronenworth. Looks like SD is emulating LAD in trying to maximize every roster spot. Interested to see if they can create matchups as well as LA

3 years ago
Reply to  jssherm

It seems like this move (and the others) makes the Padres very agile. Not only can they rest and match up vs starting pitchers but they can pinch hit, pinch run frequently with so many interchangeable pieces. As others have stated, Dodgers have been a model in this.