Padres' Kulbacki working through injuries

Outfielder recovering at instructs after tumultuous first full season

Outfielder Kellen Kulbacki hit .332 with 20 homers in 84 California League games in 2008. (Shawn E. Davis/MLB.com)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | October 24, 2008 6:00 AM

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

No, this isn't A Tale of Two Cities. It's a tale of San Diego Padres outfield prospect Kellen Kulbacki's 2008 season.

The worst of times included being hampered by a sore hamstring in Spring Training. It included a sluggish start during which he batted just .164 in April. It included the shoulder injury that sidelined him for three weeks in August before he returned for the final week of the regular season. And it ended with a brilliant diving catch in a Lake Elsinore Storm playoff game that resulted in a torn labrum. Kulbacki is now doing rehabilitation work at instructional league camp in Peoria.

"Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong," said Grady Fuson, the Padres' Vice President of Scouting and Player Development. "He made a great play, but now it's costing him time -- though we expect a full recovery before Spring Training."

And when were the best of times? That would be the red-hot days of summer from roughly Memorial Day through early August -- and they were very good indeed.

After being expected to start the year in the Class A Advanced California League, a crowded outfield at Lake Elsinore and a specific need a level lower caused the left-handed hitter to open his season at Class A Fort Wayne. Though the 22-year-old batted just .164 there, once a spot opened up with the Storm he was promoted to Lake Elsinore.

He continued to shake off the rust for the first three weeks there before it all came together. The Padres' supplemental first-round pick out of James Madison University in 2007 finally hit his first California League home run May 29. And once he popped that shot, it seemed like he never stopped.

In 84 games with the Storm, Kulbacki hit .332 with 20 homers and 66 RBIs, posting a .589 slugging percentage and a .428 on-base percentage, both of which would have ranked among the league leaders had he enough at-bats. And this is despite hitting just .221 in May.

His 22 homers on the season (including two at Fort Wayne) led the organization. He hit .329 in June, a torrid .405 in July and .324 in August. He had two streaks where he homered in three straight games and a span in July during which he had at least one home run in seven out of 11 games.

He also posted an 18-game hitting streak during which he drove in 22 runs and had 11 multi-hit games, including a pair of four-hit games, as well as a 36-game streak of reaching base, during which he hit over .400.

All these numbers made it even more frustrating for Kulbacki and his Storm teammates when he was sidelined with the initial injury to his non-throwing shoulder -- a pulled muscle which made it too painful for him to swing -- from Aug. 5-24. But it wasn't the first time the 2007 Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year had faced adversity.

After hitting .301 with eight homers and 39 RBIs at short-season Eugene in his pro debut that summer, Kulbacki came into Spring Training raring to go before pulling his hamstring just as spring Minor League games were starting.

"When I got back into it at Fort Wayne, I wasn't 100 percent yet and I was worried because it was cold there and I didn't want to get hurt again," recalled Kulbacki. "My swing didn't feel comfortable yet either so I was battling a lot of things and when I got up to Lake Elsinore I realized I was putting a lot of pressure on myself rather than focusing on the things I needed to."

Once he followed the old philosophy of no longer worrying about things that were out of his control, things turned around and he took more than an organization-high home run total away with him.

"It was a learning experience and I took away a lot from battling the mental and physical struggles of a pro baseball player," he said. "So if I'm faced with that again I'll know how to handle it and hopefully stay on an even keel."

When Kulbacki returned from his first stint on the DL on Aug. 24, he felt he was at full strength, which made it even harder when he injured the same shoulder while making a brilliant diving catch on Sept. 5. He hit the outfield wall, dislocating his shoulder and tearing cartilage. Kulbacki knew immediately that this injury was different and more serious.

"It was hit into the gap and I got a pretty good jump on it and laid out full extension, and when I landed I heard something and it wasn't a good sound," he said. "It was disappointing and upsetting."

While most of his friends and teammates were playing in instructional league games or fall leagues, Kulbacki has spent the first several weeks of his Peoria stint going through a series of exercises. When his friends leave this week to head home, he'll remain in Arizona with a handful of other injured players for another month. He is expected to be able to start swinging a bat again in early December if all continues to go well.

But it says a lot about Kulbacki that when he thinks about heading home to Hershey, Pa. for Thanksgiving, he enumerates the things he has to be thankful for rather than dwelling on such a tough series of mishaps in 2008.

"Things could have been much worse," he said. "The best thing is that it wasn't my throwing shoulder, so the rehab process is only half the time it would have taken. Plus it's the offseason, so it's giving me time to relax and not rush myself to get back into the swing of things because there is a lot of downtime before Spring Training. I don't have to force the physical therapy, I can just make sure I'm 100 percent."

It's this kind of attitude that has made Kulbacki such a favorite in the Padres system in the year since being drafted. "He's a gamer who comes to play and he wants to get better, which is a major attribute," Fuson said. "He works extremely hard and when he was struggling he was reaching for help on every side of the door to find out what had gone wrong."

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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