Attacking Kris Bryant … soft, softer, softest

James Shields knows what he’s doing.

Look at his resume. Look at the innings, the success. The guy keeps a big binder of pitch tendencies, what he’s done to who, when and how. He’s got the stuff and he has the brains, too.

Derek Norris told me about the binder in Spring Training. That’s when he realized that Shields was really in-tune with the game — his game.

Move ahead to Friday, with the world looking in (it seemed) on rookie Kris Bryant’s debut for the Cubs. Shields needed three pitches to strike him out in the first inning. He then added two more strikeouts, taking a very similar approach.

Cutters and changeups, located out of the fat part of the hitting zone. On a day when Shields, in his own words, wasn’t at his best, he executed against Bryant — maybe knowing the rookie would be amped-up and hunting for fastballs.

“He may have used his aggressiveness against him. He has the kind of cadre of pitches to do something like that,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who knows Shields well from their time together with the Rays.

“James is good. I was hoping he would hang a change-up. If he had it would have gone far but he kept getting them in good spots for him and bad for us.”

Expect this entry to go into the Shields’ binder. Another name, another note, something to consult when these two meet again.

— Corey Brock

Starting with the starters …

We’ve talked (a lot) about the Padres revamped offense, and rightfully so. Through the first 10 games, the offense is notably better than a year ago and we’ve already seen the contributions of Matt Kemp and Justin Upton in the middle of the lineup so far.

But how about that starting pitching?

After Wednesday’s victory over the D-backs, Padres starting pitchers have a 2.44 ERA in their first 59 1/3 innings this year, which is the best mark in the National League and the third-best in baseball, trailing the Tigers and A’s.

The team will begin its third turn through the rotation on Friday when the Padres open a three-game series at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, but so far the early returns from the starters have been very good.

And consider that Ian Kennedy, the team’s No. 4 starter is on the disabled list. Odrisamer Despaigne has filled in well and has allowed one run in 11 2/3 innings.

Maybe the surprise of the bunch is Brandon Morrow, who has worked seven innings in each of his first two starts — doing so for the first time since September 27-October 3, 2012. You’d be hard-pressed to too many better No. 5 starters — in a small sample-size, of course — than Morrow.

— Corey Brock

Nick Hundley … future manager?

If you follow the game enough, you probably already know that catchers make a popular choice for big league managers.

After all, there’s currently 12 of them managing in the big leagues. It’s the understanding of knowing the total game — the pitching aspect, handling a staff, take-charge attitude, the offensive component and knowing the true grind of the game, etc.

I’m sure there’s more reasons why catchers make for good managers. Those are just a few.

I’m always curious, in dealing with players on a day-to-day basis, who might make for a good manager down the road, after their playing days.

It’s always struck me that now former Padres catcher Nick Hundley — traded Saturday to the Orioles — might eventually land there when his playing days are over.

Today, I asked Padres manager Bud Black — not a former catcher, mind you — if he felt the same way. Here’s what he said:

“I do. Of all the guys that come through that you touch as players, there’s a few guys that you jot down as future staff guys,” Black said. “Managers, coaches, instructors, announcers, whatever. Nick tracks toward the field as a future manager or coach.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nick’s father, Tim, is a assistant football coach at UNLV and has had several Division I coaching stops — Oregon State, Colorado, SMU and Washington, to name a few.

Maybe the apple doesn’t fall from the tree?

— Corey Brock

 

 

Kyle Blanks: A career retrospective …

The Padres parted ways with Kyle Blanks on Thursday, sending him to the A’s for a Minor League outfielder and a player to be named later.

I referred to Blanks’ time with the Padres as ‘star-crossed’ … and I truly believe that. What an interesting career arc, one that was often interrupted by injury but sprinkled with flashes of wonderful talent.

What would Blanks do with, say, 500-600 plate appearances? I still wonder, though I think after 800+ PA’s with the Padres, we do have a pretty good idea what kind of player he his; You’ll get some pop, some strikeouts.

Blanks was a 42nd-round Draft choice in 2004 as a draft-and-follow guy (a rule now since abolished). He signed before the 2005 for fifth-round money, as the consensus was he would have been drafted in the top 10 rounds that year.

The Padres loved how athletic he was — not just for a big man, but athletic in general. This is a kid who played some shortstop in high school and summer ball. He could pitch. He had nimble feet. The Padres thought they were getting a gem.

Blanks made his big league debut at age 22 in 2009. He showed some amazing raw power. A first baseman by trade, he took well to the outfield. Remember his inside-the-park home run against the Cubs? The 88-train, chugging around the bases.

Heck, the Padres even decided to give him his own bobblehead in 2010 — they team went a little bobbleheads crazy that year — even if he played in 54 games the following year. Fifty-four games!

But Blanks’ career was derailed on numerous occasions by injuries — he had Tommy John surgery, shoulder surgery and has had various issues over the years. Staying on the field became an issue. When that becomes a trend, it’s hard for a team to pencil you into their long-term plans.

Now, at 27, Blanks is at the point where he has nothing left to prove in Triple-A. He heads to the A’s where he’ll likely be part of a platoon at first base.

I find it a little ironic that Blanks’ hometown, Moriarty, M.M., is know as the “Crossroads of Opportunity.”

We’ll see where this deal takes him.

— Corey Brock

So what about Despaigne?

You might have noticed the news Friday that the Padres (finally) signed 27-year-old Cuban pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne to a Minor League deal. If not, here’s the story.

This would have likely happened sooner but Despaigne had to obtain a visa and pass a physical. The Padres saw him several times play in Mexico and he worked out at the team’s Spring Training facility in February.

The deal is a Minor League deal, as mentioned, with a $1 million bonus. Pretty low risk investment.

So what to expect?

He will head to extended Spring Training in Arizona for at least two weeks to get in game shape. Now matter how much work he’s done to get ready to pitch, he’ll need to get in game shape, arm and all.

He’ll likely head to Double-A San Antonio, a far better pitcher environment than, say, than the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes said Despaigne  reminded him of the “old generation” Cuban pitchers who have come to the big leagues before him, such as Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras and Livan Hernandez. in the sense that he is a creative pitcher in terms of the number of pitches he’ll use and also in terms of various arm angles.

From a velocity standpoint, Byrnes said Despaigne has topped out at 94 mph, but certainly sits lower than that.

My guess is we’ll see him here in San Diego at some point. He’s an intriguing guy, to be sure. But the fact that his deal was a Minor League one with a small bonus leads me to believe that there’s probably not much of a ceiling.

Then again, who cares? If he can help you win games today, does it really matter what the guy will be in two, three, four years?

— Corey Brock

Some extras/goodies from the Darren Balsley story …

Hey gang, in case you missed it, I wrote a story Thursday on Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley.

I feel I’ve developed a good relationship with ‘Bals’ in my seven-plus years covering the team but, before Thursday, had never profiled him in a story.

There’s a good reason for that: Balsley hates talking about himself. And hate, I feel, might be putting it lightly. You want to talk about his pitchers, mechanics, fantasy football, then he’s your guy. But turn the subject and spotlight on him, and he clams up.

Anyway, it was a fun story with some things I just couldn’t squeeze in. Here they are:

— From this last road trip, a tight game in Milwaukee, and Balsley makes a visit to the mound. Let catcher Nick Hundley take it from here:

 “They had the bases loaded with one out and Dale [Thayer] is on the mound,” Hundley said. “Bals comes out to the mound and says, ‘here’s what’s going to happen … if you do this one thing, then we are going to get a groundball, double play.’ So Dale executes the pitch [fastball away] and we get a double-play on the first pitch.”

A look of incredulity washes over Hundley’s face as he’s telling the story.

“He actually told us what was going to happen. That’s a pretty cool thing,” Hundley said. “You can allow yourself to be a little excited about that one.

— Some great stuff from Jake Peavy, who had Balsley in the Minors and the big leagues:

“I had a great privilege of being there when Darren and Darrel Akerfelds were there and I had such good friends and two great pitching guys who worked as a team. Those two guys for me were a team. Both mechanically and mentally. As friends, they knew me better than most people knew me and they, obviously, knew my craft so well. They had seen me since I was a kid. Growing, learning, becoming better. I feel like they took pride in that process with me.”

“Darren helped me in every walk of life — off the field, being a man, growing up, having children. Our sons are two days apart and both named Jacob. There are a lot of cool similarities that me and him have. We will be friends until we die.”

“Mentally. Darren has his quirks, we all do. He has different stuff he likes to do that make him feel comfortable. Darren is unbelievably comfortable at coaching the individual and making the individual believe. Sometimes he is even better getting something out of the individual that has never come out because that person never had the confidence or the belief in himself that Darren gives that person.

“Then on that given day to talk you off the ledge, so to speak, and into doing well. Hes just a great baseball mind and great coach.”

— Finally, from Padres bullpen coach Willie Blair, who was a teammate of Balsley’s back in their Toronto days. I asked Blair what kind of pitcher Balsley was”

“Darren was really good,” said Blair, who won 60 games over parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues. “He would have been a big league pitcher had he not gotten hurt. He had a good fastball that cut, a nasty slider and a good curveball. He was very aggressive and could throw his slider for a strike anytime he wanted to.”

— Corey Brock

Headley on extension: “I just don’t think it was ever the right time.”

You might have read a report Tuesday that, according to sources, the Padres made a run at signing third baseman Chase Headley to a contract extension over the winter, a proposed deal between $33-$39 million.

Obviously, no deal was ever struck, nor can we say for sure this was ever truly offered. Too many unknowns, too many people wishing to stay mum on the topic.

But Headley told me in a long interview at the end of Spring Training — you can read the story here — that there’s no hard feelings that his representation and the team couldn’t strike a deal.

“We have a good relationship with the front office, everything has been cordial. We both have an idea where the other is,” Headley said. “I think that it’s all about timing. With the ownership changes we’ve have had, I just don’t think it was ever the right time. It’s no one’s fault.”

There was, he said, sizable differences between what the team and what Headley were looking for in a long-term deal.

“I think there was some differences in both. There’s enough ground in between us to where it wasn’t going to work out right now. We understood what they were saying, and they understood what we were saying. We just couldn’t find that common ground,” he said.

I asked Headley — a homegrown player who has never played for another organization — if he thought he would/will be a Padre for the rest of his playing career.

“You understand that it’s part of the game and guys come and go. In a perfect world, you’d like to keep more guys than we have since I’ve been here,” Headley said. “And I think that’s the direction it’s going [in San Diego]. I think that’s what they want to create moving forward, more continuity. But it [change] happens when you have a bunch of philosophy changes and changes in ownership.”

So what happens now?

— Do the Padres trade Headley before the non-waiver deadline (July 31)?

— Do they hope he rebounds and then make him a qualifying offer after the season with the thought he’ll test free agency, sign elsewhere and they can add an additional draft pick?

— Do they make a run at him in terms of a deal following the season?

Headley said that at some point, someone is going to take that qualifying offer, which could be north of $15 million. To date, no one has taken the QO. Headley, for one, doesn’t believe draft pick compensation should be tied to the QO.

“We weighed that [in talking with the Padres] and it’s not a great system for the player,” Headley said. “You have to play six full seasons just to get to free agency. The average Major League career is not six years long. When you get to that point in your career, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to have this one shot at free agency affected by that [qualifying offer]. At some point, someone is going to take one of those.

“It’s not a bad way to go. That’s a pretty big number for one year.”

— Corey Brock

Jedd Gyorko: Before the contract …

By now, you’re probably well aware of the $35 million contract extension the Padres have given to second baseman Jedd Gyorko. If not, here’s my story from Monday.

In case you don’t want to read it, I’ll save you the trouble: $35 million, as it turns out, can and will buy a lot of diapers (Gyorko’s wife is expecting twin boys).

If you’re a Padres fan, I’m sure you’ve followed Gyorko’s career with the team going back to his Minor League days when he terrorized pitching at several levels. The numbers are pretty stunning and as teams are trying to predict how Minor League numbers will translate to Major League success, I’m certain the Padres looked at Gyorko’s track record in the Minor Leagues as a predictor of sorts of what kind of Major League he can become.

Last season was certainly a good start.

But what about Gyorko, the amateur? Ever wonder what the scout who recommend Gyorko thought of him the first time he saw Gyorko at West Virginia University.

Me, too. So I asked Padres’ scout Andrew Salvo about Gyorko. I talked with Salvo in 2012 about Gyorko, trying to get a read on him as a player. Here are some of Salvo’s observations:

— “All I heard was that he could rake. I also heard he was a bad athlete, had a bad body, and couldn’t defend. I thought the complete opposite when I saw him that first weekend down. The hit tool was evident, he could swing it and had all the components of what you look for in a good hitter (bat speed, hand strength, balance, hand/eye, among others).

— “He’s a better athlete than what a lot of people give him credit for. Jedd was recruited to play some Division II basketball. He played shortstop all three years at a Big East program, too. Just because he doesn’t run fast doesn’t mean he’s not a good athlete. It’s not the ideal looking body, but he has strength in all the right places (hands, wrists, forearms, core, thighs).

— “He’s just a true grinder. Great makeup guy who’s super self motivated to prove all the doubters wrong. He was an easy one to go to bat for in the draft that year because he had that “it” factor about him to go with the tools.

—  “I was just stoked we had a chance to get him. With the way bats fly off the board in the draft I didn’t think we had a shot at him where we got him.”

Gyorko was taken with the 59th overall pick in the 2010 draft. That was an important pick for the Padres, especially after their first-round pick, Karsten Whitson, opted not to sign.

Anyway, just a few thoughts from the scout who saw Gyorko the most. It should be pointed out that Salvo was also the guy who recommended first-rounder Hunter Renfroe a year ago.

— Corey Brock

 

 

 

 

About those El Paso uniforms …

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There’s a lot to like about Minor League baseball.

Those funky promotions, the fan-friendly nature of it all, the history (Player X once played here and hit a ball XXX feet etc.) and, of course, the not-so recent trend of off-the-wall mascots and uniforms.

As you’re probably aware, the Padres’ Triple-A franchise has moved to El Paso, where the team will eventually play in a new downtown ballpark. The move has been very well received from all that I’ve heard, even if you’re not enamored with their mascot — the Chihuahuas.

Yes, the Chihuahuas.

On Wednesday, the team unveiled its different uniforms for the upcoming season (see photo). There’s five variations, including — paying homage to the Padres and the Swinging Friar — the Swinging Chihuahua.

Holy merchandise boon! Let’s not kid ourselves here: Minor League baseball is about moving merchandise. I’m sure the folks in El Paso will get a nice financial boost from their new ballpark, but they’ll really clean-up in terms of merchandise.

The last that I hear, El Paso gear was flying off the shelves — at the team’s actual store and through online sales. If you’re interested in gear, here’s the link: www.EPChihuahuas.com.

I know when the team announced its mascot, there was some flak about it. And, really, you’re going to have that with no matter what you choose. But you know what? It’s fun. And it got a lot of people talking about baseball in El Paso.

And, of course, it’s already helped move a lot of merchandise. For me, I kind of dig them, name and uniforms. Good for them for (and I hate this term) thinking outside the box.

Not so fast on those Padres players …

The Padres enter the All-Star break with a 34-53 record, which has them tied for last place in the National League West with the Colorado Rockies.

So that means they’ll be sellers at or before the July 31 trade deadline, yes?

Not so fast.

While the Padres certainly have some interesting pieces they could move — and, as you might expect, they’re getting plenty of hits on third baseman Chase Headley — general manager Josh Byrnes might not be inclined to make many deals if any at all.

Why? Because the Padres like Headley just like they like outfielder Carlos Quentin, closer Huston Street as well as starting pitchers Clayton Richard and Edinson Volquez.

The popular thought is a team would have to blow the Padres away for them to part with Headley, who is still under team control for two more years, is durable, a good defender and a switch-hitter.

Quentin, the San Diego native, has struggled in July after a torrid start. He could be a nice piece for a team looking for a right-handed bat with pop.

Street, the Padres lone All-Star representative, has converted all 13 of his save opportunities and might make the most sense to move in a deal.

Richard and Volquez? They’re under team control through 2013 (or 2014 in Richard’s case) and they have  been durable. In a strange season that has seen the Padres make 19 disabled list move and with seven — yes, seven, starting pitchers currently on the disabled list, it doesn’t make sense to move them.

Hey, it could be an interesting few weeks for the Padres, who are playing better — 15-13 over their last 28 games. Or it could be downright quiet.

Stay tuned.

Corey Brock, MLB.com

@FollowThePadres on Twitter

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