Peoria, Ariz. — It was just four innings and one plate appearance in the first game of spring training, but shortstop Gabriel Arias made the most of it.
“Pretty impressive,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler. “The first at-bat he comes up and misses a double by maybe an inch. I think it’s probably easy to get your dauber down and that’s it. But next pitch follows it up with a bullet to right field.
“And he’s not done there. He ends up stealing two pitches later and gets into scoring position, then Rivas gets a hit and brings in two. For a 19-year-old — I’m trying to think what I was doing when I was 19 and I don’t quite remember, but I know it wasn’t that.”
While Arias found his way into a few big league spring training games each of the last two years, this year is different. Still only 19 years old, the precocious teen wasn’t originally slated to be part of camp, but an offseason of productive work on the heels of a second-half breakout at Lake Elsinore earned a late non-roster invitation to Major League spring training.
A year after one of the game’s most exciting young players and a franchise building block debuted at his position, it sounds crazy to ask. But…
Could Gabriel Arias be the Padres’ shortstop of the future?
Although the shortstop has appeared on the back end of a few national top 100 prospect lists, he’s not among the first names Padres fans and others think of when talking about the system. He certainly doesn’t have the same pedigree as Fernando Tatis Jr., who was widely considered the organization’s top positional prospect in a generation.
However, people both inside and outside the organization don’t dismiss the idea that Arias could eventually lay claim to the job.
Finding a rhythm
Arias was one of the big-ticket traditional amateur signings in the Padres’ 2016 international free agency extravaganza. Signed out of Venezuela for $1.95 million, Arias has stood out since his first trip stateside for stellar defense and impressive raw power at the plate.
What’s always held him back is his over-aggressive approach. In 2018 at Fort Wayne, he posted a team-high 17.4% swinging-strike rate and struck out in just under 30% of his plate appearances. Against more advanced competition in 2019, the rate skyrocketed through the first months of the California League season.
But mid-year, the right-handed slugger got a few cues that helped him relax at the plate, get on time to the ball more consistently, and turn things around. In July, Arias hit .368/.402/.547, striking out only 23 times in 112 plate appearances. Over the final month, he whiffed just 26 times in 135 trips. His second-half OPS soared to .909, pushing his overall season wOBA to 120.
With the improvements in his offensive game and already-stellar defense at shortstop, Arias went from ‘interesting prospect,’ to ‘potential difference-maker.’
“Gabe had a very, very strong second half and really raised his game,” said Padres’ Senior Director of Player Development Sam Geaney. “The challenge for him, like the challenge for all these guys, is what’s the next level?”
For Arias, finding the answer to that question meant a full offseason spent in Peoria, where he could continue to develop his game and build on last summer’s progress.
“He definitely put in work, and we rewarded him for that with an opportunity to show he belongs in major league camp.”
‘Showing it’ extends well beyond the hit and three cleanly-fielded balls in Sunday’s game at Maryvale. For Arias, that means being one of the first hitters into the cages and soaking up the time in the big league clubhouse.
By early March, Arias – who turns 20 this week – will likely be back in minor league camp. He should open the season as part of a dynamic up-the-middle unit with Luis Campusano and Taylor Trammell for Amarillo. If he can show that the new, looser approach at the plate continues to work in Double-A, he could put the Padres in a very interesting position.
There’s little doubt that as talented as Tatis is, right now Arias is a better fielder at shortstop. But the current big-leaguer, who is just over a year older, will spend the season working under the tutelage of Wayne Kirby, who is widely credited with the defensive maturation of another precocious infielder six years ago.
Is it possible that this month’s kerfuffle about a position change for Tatis is just a foreshadowing of next year? There are still far too many variables to have a firm answer today. But, as the development saying goes, control what you can and don’t worry about the rest.