Padres building strong foundation

Friars shepherding passel of prospects at lower levels

(Emily Smith/MLB.com)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | March 19, 2007 4:00 AM

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

San Diego generally hasn't been grouped with the likes of Arizona, Boston or either Los Angeles team when it comes to discussing prospects in recent seasons. But, that situation seems as if it's on the verge of changing.

The Padres have a phenomenal crop of younger players at the lower levels, led by Cedric Hunter and Will Venable. The duo could be patrolling the outfield in Southern California as soon as 2009 if everything falls into place the way some are predicting it will. Hunter and Venable stack up with just about anyone in the aforementioned organizations and figure to be among the prominent players at whatever level they play this season.

But, you need more than two players for depth and, well, the Friars certainly have more than two. Infielders Matt Antonelli and Chase Headley qualify, while Cesar Carrillo, Cesar Ramos, Jared Wells, Aaron Breit and Drew Miller are as fine a crop of mound prospects you'll find in the Minor Leagues.

General manager Kevin Towers has done a brilliant job of building the Major League roster, and his scouting and player development people have more than done their part taking care of the club's feeder system. San Diego has been a steady, winning organization over the past few seasons and the influx of talent that's on the horizon will only keep that trend alive.

Climbing the Ladder

Triple-A Portland

Cesar Carrillo, RHP
A strained elbow ligament shelved Carrillo for half of last season and prevented him from participating in any of the available fall programs. He came into camp healthy this season but pulled a hamstring while doing a shuttle run and didn't begin throwing to live hitters until early March. Still, the club is anxious to see the pitcher who dominated at the University of Miami, turning himself into a first-round selection. Carrillo was 1-3 with a 3.02 ERA in nine Southern League starts last year and received a no-decision in three innings of his lone start in Portland.

"There are two ways to look at the situation," San Diego's vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "We have a rotation in the big leagues that's a solid five. So from a health standpoint, let's hope we don't need him [Carrillo] in '07. It will do him good to break camp and get six or seven starts in Triple-A...to make sure he rebounds well, that his sides are crisp and there are no lingering effects. We want to take away the rush and move slowly. If we err, we want it to be on the side of caution, and hopefully we can have this guy back in the mix by midseason."

2005 Organizational Record
LEVEL
AAA
AA
A (Adv)
A
SS
R
LEAGUE
PCL
SOU
CAL
MWL
NWL
AZL
TEAM
Portland
Mobile
Lake Elsinore
Fort Wayne
Eugene
AZL Padres

TOTAL:

W
70
58
70
65
34
29

326

L
73
80
68
75
42
27

365

PCT
.490
.420
.507
.464
.447
.518

.472

Luis Cruz, IF
If it seems as if Cruz has been around forever, it's only because he has been. Though he didn't turn 22 until last month, Cruz already has six Minor League seasons on his resume. After repeating Double-A last year, though, it appears as if the slick-fielding infielder is ready to make a bigger leap. Cruz hit .261 with 12 homers and 65 RBIs, giving the impression that he has broken free of his all-glove, no-bat reputation. He had 11 errors in 36 games at shortstop and 12 errors in 86 games at second base.

"His work habits have improved and he's grown up," said Bill Bryk, special assistant to general manager Kevin Towers and the club's Minor League field coordinator. "He played winter ball in Mexico and he put himself on the map. He's on the 40-man now and he's committing himself to being a Major League player. I look for him to make progress and justify that spot on the 40-man.

"Defensively he hurts himself at times, but he has such good hands and good actions. He gets too flashy at times and that hurts him. He has to slow down a bit. There's too much mustard on him at times, but he's a special talent defensively. You see him make plays and go, 'Wow.' But he'll also make an easy play look tough by being too flashy."

2005 Organizational Leaders
Average
Home Runs
RBIs
Stolen Bases
ERA
Wins
Strikeouts
Saves
.314
25
83
23
1.27
13
139
34
Steve Baker
Jon Knott
F. Valenzuela Jr.
Kennard Jones
Ernesto Frieri
M. Ekstrom, J. Wells
Sean Thompson
Matt Varner
Complete MiLB statistics

Others to watch: RHP Leo Rosales was 6-6 with a 2.91 ERA in 58 games at Lake Elsinore and Mobile. He struck out 61 and walked 20. ... LHP Shawn Thompson continued his slow, monotonous journey through the system by returning to Double-A Mobile in 2006. He went 6-10 with a 3.86 ERA. Though he fanned 134 he also led the league in homers allowed (18). ... RHP Jared Wells split last season between Mobile and Portland and struggled considerably at the higher level. He was 4-3 with a 2.64 ERA in 12 Southern League starts, but went 2-9 with a 7.27 ERA in 15 Pacific Coast League outings.

Double-A San Antonio

Jose Oyervidez, RHP
Oyervidez signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2002 and appeared to have stalled when he was asked to repeat a season at Double-A in 2006. While he's likely headed back to that level this season, the expectations placed on Oyervidez are a bit different now. He's displayed a better command of the strike zone, and the fact that he went from the Northwest League directly to the Southern League without a Class A Advanced stop gives him a bit of a free pass when it comes to repeating a level.

"He's learning how to pitch at the Double-A level," Bryk said. "If he throws strikes, he has better stuff than anybody. I look for him to throw strikes after being at Double-A for the last two years. He'll go back, throw strikes and be on the map this year. He's struggled in the past, but he went from Eugene to extended Spring and Double-A for the last two years. His stuff is good and I'm looking for a breakthrough year from him."

Chase Headley, 3B
The former Tennessee Volunteer made steady and expected progress last season at Lake Elsinore, hitting .291 with 12 homers and 73 RBIs. He showed his trademark patience at the plate, drawing 74 walks while posting a .389 on-base percentage. Kevin Kouzmanoff's arrival in San Diego may alter where Headley ultimately plays, but that shouldn't stop the Friars from finding a place for him. Depending on how he develops power-wise, Headley could prove to be a steady and reliable Major Leaguer for many years.

"He's a guy we have a lot of hope for," Bryk said. "He's got great makeup and the more I see him, the more I like him. He really grows on you. In my initial report, I thought he'd be a Major League platoon guy. But after seeing him in instructs, I think he can play every day. I think he can hit for average, and if his power increases, he can be a first division guy at third base. I see him as a .280 guy with 15 to 20 homers, but his power has yet to come. And defensively, he's steady, not flashy. Ultimately, his power will dictate what type of Major League player he is."

Others to watch: C Nick Hundley had 11 homers and 67 RBIs last year while splitting time between Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore. He committed 14 errors in a combined 745 chances, allowing 18 passed balls. He earned an invite to Major League camp this year and has made a good impression. ... RHP John Madden was 2-3 with a 2.12 ERA and 20 saves in 49 games at Fort Wayne. He might not begin the year in San Antonio but he should be there at some point. "He has a heavy sinker and this could be a breakthrough year for him," Bryk said. "I think he can make Double-A. He reminds me of Jeff Nelson with a better fastball." ... LHP Cesar Ramos, a first-round supplemental pick in 2005, was 7-8 with a 3.70 ERA in 26 games (24 starts) for Lake Elsinore.

Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore

Matt Buschmann, RHP
The Padres grabbed the Vanderbilt star in the 15th round and he quickly showed that there wouldn't be much of a change in his game as he made the step into pro ball. After going 3-4 with a 3.12 ERA in 15 Northwest League games (10 starts), Buschmann got bumped up to the ever-dangerous Cal League, where he went 1-0 in a pair of starts, looking pretty comfortable in the 13 innings he pitched. He then won a playoff game for the Storm, allowing two earned runs over six innings while striking out five.

"Buschmann pitched in the playoffs there last year and showed great pitchability," Bryk said.

David Freese, 3B
How Freese lasted until the ninth round of last year's draft is puzzling, considering how well he carried himself once he began playing professionally. The South Alabama product combined to hit .317 with 13 homers and 70 RBIs in 262 Northwest and Midwest League at-bats. Nearly half his 83 hits went for extra bases. He committed seven errors last season in 157 total chances. But he has the range and the arm to be an adequate third baseman in the Major Leagues, though a position switch might come down the line.

"He's caught everyone's eye," Bryk said. "He's come into camp strong with much better bat speed. He's a very steady third baseman, too. I think he's a Jeff King type with a better, shorter swing. He uses the whole field and has power to the gaps. I think he was an excellent pick. I think he was the steal of the draft in the ninth round."

Others to watch: OF Will Venable had a big season at Fort Wayne, hitting .314 with 11 homers and 91 RBIs. He also scored 86 runs. "He has a chance to go to Double-A this year, but we don't want to rush him," Bryk said. "He's the spitting image of Dave Justice. That's who he reminds me of. He's a good outfielder, he has power and he's a leader. He has a chance to be a special player." ... 1B Kyle Blanks was slowed by leg problems for much of the second half last season. He finished with 10 homers and 52 RBIs in 308 at-bats for Fort Wayne, but has monstrous power. ... SS and former top pick Matt Bush is at a crossroads, having spent three seasons spinning his wheels because of injuries, and struggling at the plate when healthy. He came into camp about a dozen pounds heavier and in better shape than he has been in the past. Fuson admitted that it was time for Bush to take the next step in his development, or else a position switch -- he was also a pitcher in high school -- might be in order. ... 1B Daryl Jones is the other half of the big-bopper tandem with Blanks. He had 12 homers and 58 RBIs last year for Fort Wayne and hit .242. That's a marked improvement from the .201 he combined to hit in the Appalachian and Northwest Leagues in 2005.
Video: Jones extends the Midwest East's ASG lead with an RBI single

Class A Fort Wayne

Aaron Breit, Drew Miller RHPs
Both hurlers were signed as draft-and-follows last spring, Breit having pitched at Garden City Community College in Kansas and Miller hurling at Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma. Both made impressive debuts. Breit was 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 18 games (12 starts) in Eugene, striking out 69 in 64 innings. Miller, meanwhile, split time between the Arizona and Northwest Leagues, going 5-1 with a 3.56 ERA in 16 games (12 starts). He fanned 37 in 61 innings and allowed only one homer.

"Both of these guys have power arms, solid breaking stuff and good off-speed pitches," Bryk said. They're strike throwers and they use both sides of the plate. They have a real feel for what they're doing. They made great first impressions last year. I think this is a good bet where they'll be. These guys have power arms and the ability to pitch."

Cedric Hunter, OF
The Padres grabbed Hunter in the third round out of Martin Luther King, Jr. High School last year and he quickly showed he was worth the selection. He destroyed the Arizona League, hitting .371 with 44 RBIs in 213 at-bats. He fashioned a 23-game hitting streak, won league MVP laurels and then got bumped up to Eugene for a handful of games, where he hit .267 in 15 at-bats. He stole 17 bases and showed considerable patience at the plate, walking 41 times while striking out only 25 times.

"For me, he's the best all-around prospect we've had in the eight years I've been here [in this position]," Bryk said. "I had Tony Gwynn in '81 and I'm not going to jinx the guy and say he's the next Tony Gwynn, but he's got things you can't teach. He's got instincts and he's patient at the plate. He's a good competitor and he has a confident look in his eye. He's a kid, but if you watch him play, he looks like he's 22 and has been playing for four or five years. He has raw power and makes a lot of solid contact. He doesn't get fooled often and for me he's probably the most natural hitter in the system."

Others to watch: 3B Matt Antonelli was a first-rounder from Wake Forest last season and hit .286 in 189 at-bats at Eugene. He had an outstanding .426 on-base percentage at Eugene. He hits the ball well, but didn't display much power, collecting only 13 extra-base hits, none of which were homers. ... Australian right-hander John Hussey was 3-1 with a 2.44 ERA in 13 games (seven starts) in the Arizona League. He fanned 32 in 44 1/3 innings. ... RHP Pablo Menchaca was 3-1 with a 3.33 ERA in 14 games (seven starts) in the AZL and NWL. He struck out 41 in 54 innings and didn't allow a homer.

Under the Radar

Arturo Lopez, LHP
The Padres grabbed Lopez from the Dodgers in the 2004 Rule 5 Draft and the veteran Minor Leaguer -- he's been playing since he was a 17-year-old in 2000 -- has finally begun to get noticed within the organization. He spent most of last season at Lake Elsinore and Mobile, combining to go 0-2 with a 5.72 ERA in 20 games (three starts). While those numbers don't stand out, Bryk believes the work Lopez did this winter has made a difference.

"His slider has really come along," Bryk said. "We've seen an average Major League slider from him, but we took him to instructional league and worked on it. And he's come into camp with a real quality slider. You haven't heard too much from him, but he's a guy to watch."

Manny Ayala, RHP
After spending a season in independent ball, Ayala made his affiliated debut last year and spent time at three levels. The bulk of his work came at Lake Elsinore, where he was 5-4 with a 4.05 ERA in 23 games (12 starts). He also pitched in three games in Fort Wayne and registered two innings in Portland. He has a low- to mid-90s fastball that has some movement.

"He's got a great changeup and a plus fastball," Bryk said. "He was our most improved pitcher last year in the instructional league."

2006 Draft Recap

RHP Jonathan Kirby, a 31st-round selection from Lee University, was unheralded but solid in splitting 24 games between Eugene and Fort Wayne. He saw the bulk of his action in the Northwest League, going 2-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 32 2/3 innings. Kirby allowed only one homer in 36 1/3 innings overall. ... Top pick Matt Antonelli, a third baseman out of high school, hit .286 with 22 RBIs in 189 at-bats at Eugene. While there's nothing terribly remarkable there, look closer and you'll notice that he actually walked more (46) than he struck out (31). That's rare for a young player, particularly that margin of difference. He then had 16 at-bats at Fort Wayne, where he fanned six times and walked twice. ... Second-rounder Chad Huffman, a second baseman from Texas Christian, was second in the NWL in hitting (.343), first in on-base percentage (.439) and second in slugging percentage (.576). He hit nine homers and was hit by 14 pitches. Huffman also got bumped up to Fort Wayne for five games and hit .214. ... 1B Craig Cooper, a seventh-rounder from Notre Dame, also tore up the NWL, finishing third in batting at .320 and fifth with 46 RBIs. ... Southpaw Brooks Dunn, a 23rd-rounder from Mississippi State, was fourth in the NWL with a 2.41 ERA. He also didn't allow a homer in 78 1/3 innings. ... OF Mike Epping, a 13th-rounder, showed some speed at the University of New Orleans, stealing 42 bases. He then stole 17 more in the NWL while hitting. 265. ... OF Garner Wetzel, an 18th-rounder from Millsaps College, struggled to hit a combined .198 in 111 at-bats between the Arizona and Northwest Leagues. He struck out 23 times and walked only nine.

Predictions

Organizational Player of the Year -- OF Cedric Hunter
Hunter appears to be an all-world talent, and that should continue to shine through this year as he becomes one of the most watched Minor Leaguers in the game.

Organizational Pitcher of the Year -- RHP Cesar Carrillo
Carrillo should come back from a series of nagging injuries, including a hamstring problem this spring, and have a big season in Portland. That should translate into a taste of life in San Diego before the year's end.

Quotable

"In our last two drafts, our kids have had outstanding makeup," Bryk said. "I think our scouting department has done a great job signing guys with good makeup."

Kevin Czerwinski 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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