Kouzmanoff no longer under the radar

Player of the Year to battle for Padres' roster spot

(Buffalo Bisons)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | November 29, 2006 6:44 AM

"Thank you for flying Under the Radar Airlines. We hope you enjoyed your trip." That's the message being sent to newly minted San Diego Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff.

Once you are acquired via trade for perhaps the team's most exciting young everyday player, you pretty much lose that "under the radar" status.

And, yeah, being named MiLB.com's Minor League Offensive Player of the Year probably doesn't hurt, either.

"I like to be under the radar, I'm happy to just hang low and not be in all the papers and magazines and stuff," Kouzmanoff said. "But I guess there's no more hiding now."

Kouzmanoff, originally a sixth-round pick by the Cleveland Indians in 2003, was dealt to the Padres on Nov. 8 along with journeyman middle reliever Andrew Brown for second baseman Josh Barfield, who hit .280 with 13 homers, 58 RBIs and 21 steals in his Major League debut.

The Indians, who had been muddling by with Joe Inglett and Hector Luna at second base since dealing Ronnie Belliard to St. Louis at the trade deadline, needed a can't-miss guy to pair with shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

The Padres, meanwhile, were looking to upgrade at the hot corner from Russell Branyan, himself a former Cleveland prospect.

Kouzmanoff's consistent success in the Minors, coupled with his monster breakthrough season in '06, sealed the deal.

This past summer, the 25-year-old combined to hit .379 between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo, missing the Minor League batting crown by .001 while combining for 22 homers and 75 RBIs in only 94 games. He led the Minors in slugging (.656) and was fourth among full-season players in on-base percentage (.437).

Kouzmanoff made his Major League debut on Sept. 2 and promptly made history when he crushed the very first pitch he saw from Texas Rangers rookie Edinson Volquez for a grand slam.

"I was a little nervous, I had some butterflies," he admitted, looking back on his impressive debut. "But the bases were loaded, so I figured they'd try to get ahead with a first-pitch fastball because I was the new guy in town."

Kouzmanoff became aware of the magnitude of his feat the next day when his agent called.

"He asked me how it felt to be the answer to a sports trivia question for the rest of my life," laughed Kouzmanoff, who hit .214 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 16 games in his brief Major League foray. "It was pretty cool."

Kouzmanoff didn't have much time to bask in the glory when the season ended, as he headed out to play for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League. He continued to punish pitching to the tune of a .382 average, but the fall campaign was hardly business as usual.

Kouzmanoff was playing first base for the Javs, since the Indians clearly saw their future at the hot corner in power-hitting prospect Andy Marte. So when the calls came on Nov. 8, first from Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro and shortly thereafter from Padres counterpart Kevin Towers, there was a lot for Kouzmanoff to process.

"When Mark called and told me they'd made a business decision and traded me to the Padres, I was shocked and surprised," admitted Kouzmanoff. "I had no clue it was coming."

A chat with Towers brought the news that he would be in the running for the starting job in San Diego, but Kouzmanoff is not taking anything for granted.

"You never know, so I'm going into Spring Training as if I'm battling for a job," he said. "I think it's a good career move for me, though, and I'm looking forward to it."

Playing in Peoria this fall and sharing a home stadium with the Padres prospects on hand for the second time in three years, Kouzmanoff is familiar with his 2007 Spring Training home and a few of the players in the system.

Ironically, one of his AFL teammates in 2004 was Barfield.

"It's nice to be traded for such an awesome player," he said. "It makes you feel like all this hard work has hit home."

Nice, but a little odd. While the Padres prospects were on the Peoria Saguaros, Kouzmanoff remained on the Javelinas after the trade. When the Peoria rivals squared off, he admitted, it was a little strange.

"What was weird was when I had the road jersey on and they were in the other dugout in their home uniforms," he said.

Kouzmanoff's first AFL stint in '04 was a costly one, though. Known for his all-out defensive style, that hardscrabble attitude cost him dearly when he chased a foul ball into the third-base dugout and fell down the stairs, injuring his back.

That cost him a large chunk of the 2005 regular season, as he batted .330 with a .591 slugging percentage in 68 games at Advanced Class A Kinston. This past year, he also missed time after straining a hamstring while trying to stretch a single into a double.

But don't look for him to change his style.

"I only know one speed, and that's 100 percent," he explained. "It's a matter of being smart and saving myself when I can, going easy when it's OK to go easy and hard when I need to go hard."

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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