Padres boast well-balanced system

Farm is poised to be generous to San Diego whenever necessary

(Jerry Hale/

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / | March 23, 2008 4:00 AM

The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.

Looking at the San Diego farm system is a lot like going to eat on cruise ship buffet -- there's a little bit of everything for everyone, and no one will ever leave without being satiated.

If you want pitchers, the Padres have pitchers. You want outfielders, they have them, too. Toss in a few scrappy infielders, a nice crop of sleepers, and San Diego appears set for quite some time to come. Many of the players that helped Double-A San Antonio win the Texas League title last year are close to helping the big-league club. They'll be on the West Coast this year, if not in San Diego then in Portland.

So as the first pitch of the Minor League season approaches, feast on what the Padres have to offer. Here's a closer look at some of what San Diego has in its system heading into 2008.

10 Spot
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:

Cedric Hunter, OF
Hunter played in his first full season as a pro, getting a three-game taste of the Pacific Coast League as an emergency callup in the process. Otherwise, he spent the entire season at Fort Wayne of the Midwest League, where he played well but didn't shine as he did in 2006 while winning the MVP in the Arizona Rookie League. Hunter hit .282 with seven homers and 58 RBIs at Fort Wayne -- he was 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs in Portland -- with only 29 of his 140 hits going for extra bases.

"I still like him and I still compare him to a Jacque Jones kind of guy," said Bill Bryk, who begins his first season as a scout with the Padres after spending several years as a special assistant and Minor League field coordinator. "I see him as a corner guy, someone who'll have enough power to play the corner. You can put the kid in any park and he'll have a good at-bat. But like other kids, he has a misconception about where he belongs.

"He didn't put in the effort he put into the instructional league the year before. But we rode him pretty hard, and we didn't let him get away with anything. He came to instructs and thought he was there on Major League rehab. He just didn't know. But he's a natural hitter, and I think he'll tear up the Cal League this year."
Audio: Hunter's homer stakes Portland to a lead

Josh Geer, RHP
Geer remains one of San Diego's more interesting prospects, simply because he doesn't seem to get the kind of respect that other pitchers in the organization have garnered. Granted, his delivery isn't flawless, his fastball isn't dominating and his breaking ball, according to one scout, is not much to speak of. Yet, he continues to win and excel wherever he goes.

Here are a few players on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:

Chase Headley, 3B/OF -- If there's a way to get on base, Headley will find it. That ability helped pave the way to the Most Valuable Player Award in the Texas League last season, where he led the circuit in hitting (.330), on-base (.437) and slugging percentage (.580). Headley also hit 20 homers and drove in 78 runs, and was one of the driving forces behind San Antonio's run to the Texas League title.

The University of Tennessee product has a great eye at the plate, he drew 74 walks for the second consecutive season and finished tied for third (with Venable) in the league in hits (143). Headley is a switch-hitter who is comfortable from both sides of the plate, and has shown better than average power to all fields.

He got a chance to experience the big leagues for a while early last summer when Kevin Kouzmanoff was sidelined with an injury. He got 18 at-bats over eight games and hit .222, but also drew a pair of walks and impressed with his attitude and work ethic. Because of Kouzmanoff, Headley will likely find himself playing another position when he reaches the Major Leagues, and to that end the club had him working in the outfield this winter.

"He plays above his tools," Bryk said. "But he's a good hitter. The first year I was lukewarm on him. But every time I went to see him last year, I liked him more. And he held his own when he got the chance to come up to the big leagues. He'll be in Portland this year, but who knows."

Cesar Carrillo, RHP -- Sure, Carrillo had Tommy John surgery last June. But that procedure has become commonplace, and it isn't unusual for a pitcher to return in a year's time, in some cases less. If Carrillo can come back healthy, he'd be a nice second-half addition in San Diego. He's got a nice fastball, a better than average curve and would be a fresh face when the Padres are fighting, as is expected, for a divisional crown.

"If he's healthy, for me, he'd be the first guy in the organization to help as a starter," Bryk said. "And everyone tells me he's doing fine."

Geer tied for the Minor League lead with 17 wins last season (16 of which came in the Texas League, earning him the circuit's Pitcher of the Year honors). Overall, he's 34-14 with a 3.69 ERA in 66 Minor League appearances (64 starts). He's got a better than three-to-one strikeout ratio over the course of three seasons, and figures to be an integral part of Portland's staff this year. Geer may not have the power or finesse of some of the other pitchers in the San Diego system, but he remains on course to be a back end of the rotation starter in the Major Leagues before long.
Audio: Geer locks up win No. 11

Wade LeBlanc, LHP
You can throw LeBlanc in there with a host of others who helped contribute to San Antonio's Texas League title. He was 13-8 overall, but went 7-3 in 12 outings (11 starts) after moving up from Lake Elsinore. He won his last four starts, posting a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings. If you include the playoffs, he was 6-0 in his final six starts with a 1.03 ERA, striking out 41 and walking nine along the way.

The former second-rounder out of Alabama won't overpower anyone, but he generally puts the ball where he wants it, relying more on the finesse of his off-speed stuff.

"I like him better than Geer and [Will] Inman," Bryk said. He's left-handed and he has more stuff. He's a great competitor. Even though his fastball is pretty true, he showed more stuff. His fastball is sneaky, that's the best way to put it. His breaking ball is an average pitch, but he has a plus changeup."
Audio: LeBlanc notches his 10th strikeout

Matt Antonelli, 2B
The former first-rounder from Wake Forest had a big season in 2007, splitting time between the California and Texas Leagues. He opened the season with Lake Elsinore, where he hit .314 with 14 homers and 54 RBIs in 347 at-bats, earning a promotion to San Antonio, where he helped lead the Missions to the circuit crown. He batted .294 in 187 at-bats, hitting seven homers and driving in 24 runs.

Those numbers are a tad inflated, though, as a result of his hitting .419 through his first 17 games in the Texas Leagues. He hit .230 in his final 152 at-bats, which included August, September and the playoffs, perhaps a sign that he was wearing down in what was his first full season as a pro. Still, he's capable of producing at the plate over the long haul, and has adapted well enough at second base after being moved at the end of his first season with the club. He had 17 errors in 562 total chances last year.

"I think the kid has done a fine job going from third to second," Bryk said. "He's never going to look like Ryne Sandberg over there, but he's a full-effort player on the field and he gets the job done. And if you stick him in center field, he's an Aaron Rowand type guy. I don't know if we're going to do that, but I think he can do it. He plays hard, though, and he wears himself down."
Audio: Matt Antonelli gets his second homer of the game
Video: All-Star Antonelli chats with MLB.TV

Yefri Carvajal, OF
The native of the Dominican Republic turned 19 in January and already has two seasons and nearly 300 at-bats on his resume. He's got quick wrists and an explosive swing, and once his frame begins to fill out he projects to have good power numbers. He hit three homers and drove in 41 runs last year while splitting time between the Arizona and Northwest Leagues.

"He's a five-tool guy who can play some center field, though he doesn't profile that way," Bryk said. "He's got to keep his weight down, too. He's a body guy. He's got instincts for the game, which is good, and he's hungry. This will be a big year for him to be in the Midwest League at 19."
Audio: Carvahal's homer plates three

Kyle Blanks, 1B
The 6-foot-6, near 300-pounder continued to punish the ball last season, hitting 24 homers and driving in 100 runs at Lake Elsinore. He finished third in the league in homers, third with 59 extra-base hits and fourth in RBIs. Blanks even stole 11 bases and hit four triples, an indication that he's a bit for nimble for his size.

Blanks hit much better against left-handed hitters (.370 in 108 at-bats) but he was still solid facing righties (.280, 23 homers). Like most young sluggers, he is susceptible to the strikeout, but not nearly as much as one would think. He had only 98 strikeouts last year, an average of one every 4.7 at-bats, which is down from the one every 3.7 at-bats he had been averaging through his first two pro seasons. His nine errors left him in the middle of the pack among Cal League first basemen.

"I call him Big Hondo," Bryk said. "I like his power. He has a chance to hit for power and average. And he's a better first baseman than people think. And he can play left field like the real Hondo [Frank Howard]. He runs a 7.1-7.5 in the 60, too, which is good for a near 300-pounder. The biggest thing for him is if he keeps his weight down. If he does that, he'll continue on to the Major Leagues. If he doesn't keep his weight down, he may never make it."
Audio: Kyle Blanks rips a three-run homer
Audio: Blanks' blast makes it a nine-run inning

Will Venable, OF
Venable is smart (he attended Princeton) and knows about the game (his dad Max played in the big leagues for a dozen seasons). So, right from the outset there's a great deal to like. Throw in the fact that he went from the Midwest League in 2006 up to the Texas League last year without much of a falloff, and he becomes a most intriguing player.

Venable did see his home run and RBI totals drop from 11 and 91 to eight and 68, respectively, from 2006, and his walk totals also fell (55 to 38). But much of that has to do with the better quality of pitching he was facing, as well as some mechanical issues he was working through. That he played the entire season in San Antonio will be a huge benefit, so much so that there's a chance he'll get a look in the big leagues at some point this year.

"He's a poor man's Dave Justice," Bryk said. "He's a good athlete and a quiet kind of a kid. Scouts from other organizations think he has bad body language, and when they ask about it they say he doesn't appear to be a hustler. But he is, and he's a leader. He's a hard worker, the opposite of what some people think. He jumped a league last year, so I think there will be more power there, too. I like him as a regular Major League outfielder."
Audio: Will Venable hits for the cycle
Audio: Venable's home run knots the score

Cesar Ramos, LHP
The former supplemental-round pick (2005) had his best season as a pro last year with San Antonio, going 13-9 with a 3.41 ERA in 27 starts. He also tossed a pair of complete games, all numbers that put him near the top of the league in each of those categories. He's got a nice, low-90s fastball that he complements well with a no-nonsense changeup and a slider that he's beginning to throw with more consistency.

"I think he has better stuff than [Josh] Geer and [Wade] LeBlanc, and those are the guys you hear about all the time," Bryk said. "He doesn't have the command and the pitchability that they do, but the stuff is better. I'm looking for him to have a solid season this year. As he learns how to use his stuff better, he's going to move."
Audio: Ramos wraps up a shutout

Matt Latos, RHP
The 2006 11th-round selection out of Broward Community College had flashes of brilliance during his rookie season in pro ball, going 1-4 with a 3.83 ERA for Eugene in the Northwest League. This even though he posted a four-game losing streak at the end of July into the first week of August that saw him allow six earned runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings in the last of those four outings, after which his ERA sat at 6.18. Latos rebounded for a strong finish, posting a 1.57 ERA over his final six starts (28 2/3 innings), striking out 39 in the process.

Overall, he struck out 74 in 56 1/3 innings, throwing some serious heat, occasionally touching 98 on the gun. Bryk said he was the "hardest thrower we have." He turned 20 in December, so there's no reason to rush. He'll begin the year in Fort Wayne, and could be dominant there if he finds the touch with his off-speed stuff.
Audio: Latos gets his career-high 10th strikeout

Steve Garrison, LHP
The former 10th-rounder came over from Milwaukee in the Scott Linebrink deal and immediately went to work making a name for himself in the organization. He started seven games for Lake Elsinore in the California League, going 2-3 with a 2.79 ERA in 42 innings. He struck out 28, walked only six, and in a league that has a reputation for being hitter-friendly, he didn't seem to notice, holding the opposition to a .208 average.

Overall, he was 10-7 in 2007, having begun the year with Brevard County of the Florida State League, a windy venue that rivals many of the Cal League stadiums for offensive unpredictability. His combined ERA was 3.25. He allowed only eight homers last season in 146 2/3 innings, not bad considering he won't overpower anyone. Garrison will get to test his mettle this season in the Texas League.

"He's a left-handed Greg Maddux-type," Bryk said. "He's an artist. He won't knock your eyes out with his stuff, but he's got above-average stuff with great pitchability. He holds runners well and he has great instincts. He's in and out on the black, and is a very solid fundamental pitcher."
Audio: Garrison works five hitless frames

Under the Radar

Luis Durango, OF
The diminutive Panamanian (5-foot-10, 150 pounds) relies on speed to get the job done. He's stolen 34 bases in 50 attempts through 108 professional games in the Arizona and Northwest Leagues, and figures to run wild this year in Fort Wayne. While you can't steal first base, you can leg out a few hits, which Durango clearly has done. He's sporting a .370 batting average through 443 professional at-bats.

"He's got speed, and speed never slumps," Bryk said. "He goes 3.8, 3.7 to first and I even got him at 3.5 on a bunt. He's come miles from when we first got him, when he could walk and chew gum. He couldn't throw the ball from third to first, and now he has an average Major League arm. He's a little guy with blazing speed; it's a special tool. He's an exciting player."
Audio: Durango walks off with a solo shot

Ernesto Frieri, RHP
The Colombian native split last season between Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore, going 2-2 with a 2.29 ERA in 53 appearances. He fanned 92 in 86 1/3 innings. He struck out 27 and walked six in 21 2/3 Cal League innings.

"Last year in Fort Wayne, we told him to make some changes in his delivery, that if you don't do it this way, you're probably going to be released," Bryk said. "He changed his mechanics, and the fastball went from 90 to 95."
Audio: Six up, six down for Frieri

2007 Draft Recap

Top pick Nick Schmidt was 0-1 with a 6.43 ERA in seven innings at Fort Wayne before developing elbow problems. He underwent Tommy John surgery in October and is expected to miss the entire 2008 season. ... OF Kellen Kulbacki batted .301 with eight homers and 39 RBIs in 226 Northwest League at-bats. He finished particularly strong, hitting .360 with 21 RBIs over his final 28 games. He committed one error and had four assists in 82 chances in right field. ... SS Drew Cumberland appeared in 25 Arizona and Northwest League games, hitting .320 with seven RBIs. The 18-year-old had only 11 strikeouts but managed nine walks in 103 at-bats. Bryk said that Cumberland, along with Headley and Hunter, are the best pure hitters in the organization. ... C Mitch Canham (sandwich round, Oregon State) spent the bulk of his 30 games at Eugene, getting a two-game taste with Lake Elsinore at the end of the year. He hit .276 with two homers and 19 RBIs. He threw out 10 of 32 runners attempting to steal, and had two errors and eight passed balls in 234 chances. ... LHP Cory Luebke (sandwich round, Ohio State) was 5-3 with a 3.07 ERA in 15 games (nine starts) in the Northwest, Midwest and California Leagues. His two Cal League appearances resulted in a 1-1 mark and 7.71 ERA over seven innings. "He was the best pitcher in the draft last year as far as I was concerned," Bryk said. ... OF Danny Payne (sandwich round, Georgia Tech) had 190 at-bats at Eugene and Fort Wayne and combined to hit .268 with 22 RBIs. While he had 59 strikeouts, he also negotiated 55 walks and had an impressive .435 OBP. ... 2B Eric Sogard (second round, Arizona State) saw action on three levels, spending the bulk of his time with Fort Wayne and Eugene. He even got into a game with Portland in the PCL, combining to hit .251 with four homers and 33 RBIs. ... OF Brad Chalk (second round, Clemson) hit .276 with 13 RBIs in the Arizona and Northwest Leagues. He had nine extra-base hits, none of which were home runs, in 127 at-bats. ... SS Lance Zawadzki (fourth round, Lee University) combined to hit .305 in the Arizona and Northwest leagues with three homers, 19 RBIs and .372 OBP.
Audio: Schmidt escapes trouble with a strikeout
Audio: Kellen Kulbacki drills a three-run homer
Audio: Kulbacki's two-run blast pads the lead
Audio: Cumberland strokes a two-bagger
Audio: Canham puts Eugene on the board
Audio: Luebke heats up early
Audio: Payne's double plates the game-winner
Audio: Sogard's homer makes it a five-run fifth
Audio: Chalk cracks a two-run triple
Audio: Zawadzki's three-run shot starts a rally


Organizational Player of the Year: Kyle Blanks
The Texas League won't be big enough to hold Blanks, who is taking his big-bopping style to San Antonio. He'll be on a mission to prove he's the Organizational Player of the Year.

Cy on the Farm (Organizational Pitcher of the Year): Matt Latos
We're going to go ahead and say that Latos will win 13 games this year, all of which will either come at Fort Wayne or by splitting time there and in the Cal League.


"He's like Johnny Damon, but he throws better. He's a better defensive player, and he's as good as or better as a runner. He had a bad back when he signed, but he's a good runner."

-- Bryk on second-round pick Brad Chalk.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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