Kevin Cron was in the same boat as many players in Major League camps on March 12. He saw the news that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus, causing the NBA to suspend its season, and knew MLB soon would follow. The league canceled Spring
Kevin Cron was in the same boat as many players in Major League camps on March 12. He saw the news that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus, causing the NBA to suspend its season, and knew MLB soon would follow. The league canceled Spring Training at a time when Cron was hitting .241/.313/.586 in Cactus League play and ranking second among D-backs hitters with three homers in 14 games. All seven of his hits (including those three dingers) came in his last five games, just as he was heating up in the Arizona sun.
The postponement — though necessary for health purposes — cut off his chance to make the big club. Two weeks later, the D-backs made it official, notifying Cron he had been optioned back to Triple-A Reno on March 26, the day that was meant to be Major League Opening Day.
“That was definitely a bitter moment,” Cron said. “You never want to get that call when there’s nothing you can do about it. There was no opportunity to go out and play better and earn the right to not have that happen. You don’t feel like you got the chance to finish off what you started in terms of getting that spot. That’s nothing against the D-backs. They had to make decisions. It just wasn’t ideal by any means. … It’s a motivating factor that keeps me going until we get to Spring Training II, where I’ll have the mind-set of I’m going to show you guys that this team needs me to help win games.”
Cron may indeed get that chance, albeit in a completely different baseball world than he envisioned on March 12.
As Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association hash out a plan for the sport’s return in the United States this summer, multiple reports have indicated the designated hitter rule — first implemented in the American League in 1973 but stuck only there since — will come to the National League in 2020. The move would coincide with a more regionally based schedule — one in which, for instance, Cron’s D-backs would only play AL West and NL West clubs to limit travel. With so many interleague games on the docket, the universal DH would allow for a more even playing field. It also would coincide with the expansion of the active roster to include potentially as many as 30 players with 20 more available on a taxi squad of sorts.
It’s enough to keep Arizona’s No. 26 prospect glued to the news in the same way many other baseball fans are these days.
“I think any time any baseball news — good or bad — comes across the ticker right now, I’m thinking, here we go, what do we got, what do we got,” said the first baseman. “Any information is cool to have. People in my situation benefit from that. There are people that weren’t necessarily going to have jobs that have an opportunity. Whenever we get going again — if we get going again — in Spring Training II, there are two, three, four, whatever number of new jobs available that are there to be taken. Hopefully, I can get up there and compete for one of those.”
Why Cron could benefit from an expanded roster and the senior circuit’s addition of the DH goes beyond his hot spring. The 27-year-old right-handed slugger — and brother to Tigers first baseman C.J. Cron and son of Reno manager Chris Cron — long has been one of the Minors’ most prolific home-run hitters. Last season, he led all of the Minor Leagues with 39 long balls and a .777 slugging percentage over 84 games, 82 with Reno. Even with inflated offensive numbers across Triple-A, no other qualifier slugged higher than .686 at that or any other full-season Minor League level. Since Cron debuted in 2014, his 151 career homers are tops among all Minor Leaguers, beating out Bobby Bradley’s 147 in second.
Standing at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Cron has utilized a slightly open stance and a noticeable leg kick to sustain a track record of sending the ball deep.
“I’ve hit for 25 years, whatever it may be, 26 years,” he said. “My body has a natural hitting position. It knows where it wants to be and where to fire from. Where I can get in trouble is where I start thinking of which adjustment I need to make and how I need to physically do that to put myself in a better position. To me, it’s about how can I consistently get in this natural position. That usually lines up if I do some mental swings and close my eyes and picture the right swing. The swing I always envision is the ball that I’m perfectly on time for and I hit and it takes the pitcher’s hat off, the center fielder’s hat off and then hits the batter’s eye in center field. That’s my perfect swing, and every time, I close my eyes that’s the swing I see.”
The D-backs took notice early in 2019, rewarding Cron with his Major League debut on May 24. He rode the Phoenix-Reno Express for most of the summer, getting four different stints with the big club. His primary duty was to provide right-handed thump as a depth piece since Christian Walker (.259/.348/.476, 28 homers) was in the midst of his a career year at his natural position. Similarly with Jake Lamb — two years removed from a 30-homer All-Star season of his own — also seeing some time at the cold corner, the chances to break through Arizona’s first-base depth chart just weren’t there for Cron, even after Paul Goldschmidt had been traded to St. Louis the prior offseason. Cron still left his mark in limited time, going yard on five occasions, but batted just .211 with a .269 on-base percentage over 78 plate appearances. He entered 2020 Spring Training hoping to show he could be even more productive with whatever Major League playing time the club afforded him.
“My best chance to make the team was to be an impact bat off the bench,” Cron said. “That was a goal of mine — to go in, learn, ask questions, see if I could get pinch-hit opportunities because it is a little different. I think the translation is going to be when you’re able to do things the same way you did in the Minor Leagues. My career in the Minors changed when I learned the consistency of my process, knowing that you don’t have to change drastically to make adjustments and believing in that. I came into spring thinking about that, keeping things at-bat to at-bat just like the Minor Leagues, and I think that carries a long way.”
Even following Cron’s option in March, the new DH rule opens up a big avenue for the Minor League vet. As a power-first slugger, Cron fits the designated-hitter archetype set out in the American League for decades, and though he is considered average with a good arm for first base, he’s unlikely to knock off Walker, who ranked second among Major League first basemen with 9 Outs Above Average and 11 Defensive Runs Saved last season. There doesn’t project to be a major slugger on the Arizona bench outside of Lamb, who could be used in a righty-lefty platoon with Cron. The expanded roster would make it easier to carry two DH candidates, and even then, Lamb is coming off 2018 and 2019 seasons in which he posted wRC+’s of 79 and 80 respectively.
Arizona posted an 85-77 record last year, and in a potentially shortened 82-game season, the club has more of a chance to compete for a playoff spot. If that’s going to happen, the club will need all the offensive help it can get, and with his 30-homer potential in a normal season, Cron could be cleared for takeoff with some regular playing time in The Show at last.
“The DH, theoretically, it’s every little kid’s dream,” he said. “Sit in the dugout. Talk to your buddies. Talk shop. Talk to some of the pitchers about how they would attack you. Then you go out, you hit and you do it all again. It’s hard not to get excited for something like that. That’s a whole new job being created in the National League, if that gets accepted. We still don’t know what will happen, but hopefully, I can compete for that job and run with it.”
That doesn’t mean the baseball lifer wouldn’t miss his glove at least a little bit.
“There are a lot of ways you can impact the game defensively,” Cron said. “That’s something I’ve always been drawn to. There are the physical tools of fielding and throwing the ball, but even in thinking the game, there are a bunch of different ways to think the game on the defensive side that most don’t notice. I grew up around the baseball field. Those little things about holding runners or back-picking a guy at first base specifically, things that are always running through your head. That competitiveness will never go away. But at the same time, I was born to hit. That’s something I love to do.”
Glove or no glove, this wouldn’t be the first time Cron faced — and conquered — an uphill battle in his career. He was taken in the third round of the 2011 Draft by the Mariners out of a Phoenix-area high school, only to choose to attend Texas Christian University. Cron got off to a solid start with an .886 OPS as a freshman, but came crashing down with only eight homers combined over his sophomore and junior campaigns. The D-backs came calling in the 14th round — a round that won’t exist in the 2020 Draft — in 2014.
Six years and 157 professional home runs later, Cron is ready to prove once again that he’s capable of making another jump, this time at the game’s top level in whatever role he’s given.
“In a way, it’s a blessing because you get to play your whole career with that chip on your shoulder,” he said. “Knowing to your core that you have that skill set and now you have to figure out how to maximize that. For me, that was all on the mental side, keeping the same process and approach. That’s something I’m thankful for — the lessons you learn from those rough spots. That carried me, that mind-set of ‘I’ll show you I’m still the player that was taken in the third round three years ago.’ I’ve enjoyed that and enjoyed being a little bit of an underdog.”
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.