PASCO, WA. — Even though Chris Baker only started 10 games at shortstop this spring for the University of Washington, Mark Conner, the Padres’ Director of Amateur Scouting, saw him as being able to play the position on a full-time basis.
"Our scouts had seen him play there plenty of times," said Conner. "We had seen him in high school and some with the Huskies. That is a big thing in our organization, to have multiple looks at guys so we can see their progression or regression and have a more informed idea of the player."
The Padres selected Baker, 21, a native of San Mateo, California, in the 17th round of this June’s draft. Since he joined Tri-City, he has been among the team leaders in batting average, extra-base hits and stolen bases while playing a solid defensive shortstop and being one of three Dust Devils named to the Northwest League All-Star Game.
"I think he can stay there, based off of the actions and instincts," said his manager Ben Fritz on his future at shortstop. "There are guys that are going to have better range, but his first step is solid and the hands work."
"I grew up playing there, so yes, I enjoy playing shortstop," said Baker. "But since I played so much third base in college, I still have a lot to learn too."
In his junior year, he hit .315 and led the Huskies with seven home runs and 21 extra-base hits to be named to the All-Pac-12 team. He made 116 consecutive starts in three years splitting time between shortstop, second and third base.
"My freshman year, I played third, and it was just a way to get on the field for me, and I really liked just getting an opportunity because I felt like I could take advantage of it," Baker told Dustin Brennan of the Tri-City Herald. "Whatever the team needs, I’m there to bring it to the table."
"I don’t think he is a power hitter, but he has power," elaborated Fritz on how he sees Baker developing down the road. "As long as his approach is in the middle of the field, he is going to run into some. Offensively, he has done nothing but progress in the time we have had him here."
In his first two years at Washington he didn’t put up great numbers, but he exploded this season with a .315/.373/.491 slash line in his junior season.
"For me, I had one at-bat against UCLA when the pitcher threw me a fastball away, and even though I was thinking away, I still fouled it off," he said on the moment when things began to turn around for him. "And I thought then that if I had so much time that I didn’t need to rush it. It’s strange, but certain things can just click for you.
"I have a long ways to go, but I’ve tried to adopt a big league mentality of slowing the game down. I try to concentrate on every pitch, every at-bat and every play, one at a time. I try to just focus on what is in front of me."
The six-foot-one, 190 lbs. Baker has credited taking the weight room more seriously as he progressed in his college career. The results began to translate into more power at the plate this past year.
"He was a little wide when he got here and was a little tardy and underneath certain pitches," said Fritz on the offensive adjustments they have made with him at the plate. "We’ve stood him up a little more and it got him on top of balls and he started driving them with backspin instead of topspin."
So far the biggest transition to pro ball for Baker has been more mental than physical.
"The consistency of pitching might have been a little better in the Pac-12 from what I’ve seen so far. The biggest changes for me have been some mechanical things and in being a bit more selective with my approach. I try to wait for my pitch here more than I did in college."
His carrying tool — or the biggest strength in his game that could send him to the major leagues — is his versatility. He can play three different infield positions and is thought of by the organization as a solid defender at each.
"In the field [when he was at the University of Washington] it was about making the routine play, which our coach always preached. If you can make the routine play every time and a few great plays you are going to go a long way."
"If I can continue to refine my approach at the plate, and improve on my consistency defensively, I think I have a chance to play in the major leagues.
You can follow all of the action in the Padres’ minor league system at www.madfriars.com and @madfriars on Twitter.