August 13, 2022

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Abrams looks the part in first outfield start

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SAN DIEGO — C.J. Abrams notched his first hit last week and his first home run this week. His latest first? A start in the outfield.

Abrams, the Padres’ top prospect, had never played the outfield professionally prior to the Padres’ 5-2 defeat against Atlanta on Friday night. But he played all nine innings in right field and was tested several times. Abrams made every play — catching three relatively routine fly balls and cutting off a couple of singles to ensure they wouldn’t become anything more than that. He certainly didn’t look like a 21-year-old rookie infielder thrust into an uncomfortable position.

“I thought it was great,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “He’s very athletic. There has to be some nerves. You come to the big leagues for the first time, a few games in, you’ve played shortstop your whole career, and now all of a sudden you’re in right field. But once he settled, got the first ball, I think he got more comfortable.”

The start arose out of necessity as Wil Myers is day to day with a sore left thumb. All along, manager Melvin had planned for Ha-Seong Kim to make the start at shortstop. Following Abrams’ home run Thursday night, Melvin saw Myers’ absence as an opportunity to get the prospect back in the lineup.

Abrams, of course, has been receptive to playing just about anywhere.

“Whatever they need me to do,” said Abrams, who was hit by a pitch and notched his first career steal in the fifth inning.

On Friday, they needed him in right field. And although Abrams had only begun getting work in the outfield in the final week of Spring Training, the Padres feel his elite athleticism will make up for any deficiencies.

“He’s an athlete,” Melvin said. “Surely, you’re not going to be the absolute best you can be there early on. But we wanted to keep his bat in the lineup. We wanted to keep him confident in what he’s doing.”

Abrams played six innings in the outfield during the Padres’ final Cactus League game. Before that, he hadn’t played the outfield in a game setting since he did so for Team USA’s under-18 team in 2018. That team, by the way, was absolutely loaded — with MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect Bobby Witt Jr. at shortstop and No. 8 prospect Anthony Volpe at second, pushing Abrams (ranked No. 9) to center field.

Melvin noted that Abrams likely wouldn’t be asked to play a full nine innings if the Padres had a late lead. With the rangy José Azocar on the bench, Abrams is a candidate to be replaced defensively, at least until he’s a bit more polished as an outfielder.

Naturally, Abrams’ presence in right field rekindles the questions about his future positional fit. Prior to Friday night, all of Abrams’ starts had come at shortstop. He won that job during Spring Training, with Fernando Tatis Jr. on the injured list.

But when Tatis returns, there’s no obvious place for Abrams. In Tatis and Jake Cronenworth, the Padres have one of the sport’s top double-play duos blocking his path.

That logjam has led many to speculate that Abrams might be better suited for the outfield in the long term. And, ultimately, that might be the case. But the Padres aren’t acting like it. They’re still choosing to view Abrams as a middle infielder. That’s where he got nearly all of his reps during Spring Training, and his shift to the outfield on Friday was borne only out of necessity.

“I just gotta go out there and play and do what I do, with my athleticism out there in the outfield,” Abrams said. “I can use my speed out there. I get to just run around and go catch some fly balls.”

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