Best of the System: The Top 5 Center Fielders continues to rank the <b>Best of the System</b>, this week going gap to gap in center field. Speed is always at a premium in center, and these boys can fly, so much so that we've raced right past a 'Top 5' and given you seven prospects, including the newest addition to the organization.<br><br>

#5)  Nate Whitney can run, and in PetCo Park a centerfielder better be able to run.  Signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Illinois State University by the Padres before last season Whitney was really just supposed to fill a hole, but after a season in which he posted Peoria Padres team highs in RBI, runs scored and walks, all while hitting in a spot completely unfamiliar to him, suddenly he's started showing up on the organizational radar.

He spent '04 in the clean up spot mostly, and no one is quite sure why.  Not blessed with power, Whitney is quietly came to work every day, and put up nice numbers in the Rookie League.  Known as a workhorse, he appeared in 53 or the 56 games the team played and was stellar defensively.  After that impressive season suddenly the Padres are trying to find a spot for him to see if he can continue to produce at higher levels.  With a move to the leadoff spot in the order he should be able to better capitalize on his natural talents, blazing speed and good pitch recognition.  

#4)  When people used to talk about Drew Macias you heard the same things over and over, "What a great defensive center fielder."  Nine outfield assists in his first year of pro ball will do that for your reputation, and above average speed will help.  Take great lines to the ball and hit cut off men and those kind of statements will continue to follow you around like a little lost puppy.  

But people are finally finding something else in Macias' game to talk about after a 2004 campaign at Lo-A Fort Wayne where he posted a .340 on base percentage and stole 16 bases.  The trick now for Macias is to figure out where the best spot in the batting order is (he hit everywhere except fourth and fifth in '04) and prove to those still fixated on his defense that the just turned 22 year old can continue to be a consistent threat at the plate.  If he picks up where he left off (he hit .310 in July of '04 before fatigue caught up with him in August and he hit only .208) 2005 could be the year where he elevates himself toward the top of this list.

#3)  There are two ways to look at having the nickname 'The Grit Man.'  One is that someone, probably someone who grew up in the South, doesn't particularly care for you, and thus you will forever be saddled with a name comparing you to one of the great breakfast side dishes in history.  The other is that you are a kid tough enough to report to your first year in pro ball with a painful abdominal injury, not complain about it, not use it as an excuse for why you're not immediately producing, get through it, and finish up your first year in pro ball with an on base percentage nearing .500 and a batting average nearing .350.

Chris Kolkhorst is most definitely the latter.  He came to the Padres as their 10th round pick in 2004 out of the baseball factory known as Rice University, and did not appear to be that caliber of player during his first stint at Eugene.  Going 2-20 with six strikeouts was probably not the type of first impression Kolkhorst was trying to make, but a quick trip to Peoria and some healing later, it was off to the races for the center fielder, who was one of only two Padres prospects to walk more times than he struck out during the '04 campaign.  He showed speed in center field, and has an above average arm...wait, did we say center field?  Along with the adjustment to wooden bats, the abdominal strain, the pressure of coming from a top program, and the nickname 'Grit Man' Kolkhorst also got to find out how much fun it is to learn a new position.  The results are in, and in 42 games he committed exactly zero errors.  Next year the Padres will be looking to see if the 'Grit Man' can add some meat to his game...possibly bacon?

#2)  The first half of Kennard Jones' 2004 season was the type that had elevated him to close to the top of the heap in the Padres organization.  In the Hi-A California League Jones was doing almost everything right, driving the ball to all fields, staying back, being patient and making pitchers pay for mistakes.  He was playing stellar defense and making the game look easy.  In just over 200 at bats Jones hit .291 and earned himself a promotion to the not-so-hitter-friendly Double-A Southern League.  That's about the time the wheels came off, so to speak.  

For starters, Kennard Jones has good speed, but for now the Padres are hoping he'll take it out to center field, and keep it off the basepaths.  While he snatched 19 bases between Lake Elsinore and Mobile, he was caught stealing 14 times as well.  After his promotion it seemed he was simply spinning his wheels at the plate as well as on the bases, as his average plummeted to .234 in Mobile.  It seemed Jones was overmatched, but most in the organization feel he was simply pressing, trying to do too much to justify his promotion.  He will get another shot at Double-A to start '05, and will have to regain his focus to keep his star rising.

#1)  Freddy Guzman can flat out fly.  One of the fastest players in the Padres organization he's seemingly been the center fielder of the future since the future existed.  A converted second baseman the Padres have been pleased with his defense and his work at the plate and he tops our list based largely on the fact that he was right on the verge of claiming the fourth outfielders spot before an elbow injury knocked him out for six weeks.  He's been the man of many destinations the past two seasons, logging time at Lake Elsinore, Mobile, and Triple-A Portland in 2003, and then Mobile, Portland, and a short stint with the big league club in '04.  

He never seems to have a slump, and that's because when all else fails he hits the ball to the left side of the Diamond and dares shortstop to throw him out from the hole.  It happens, about as often as a 13 seed beating a #5 in the NCAA tourney, and once on base Guzman is a nightmare for opposing pitchers.  The elbow injury does not appear to be serious and Guzman really can't afford for it to be.  An average arm in center, he'll need the elbow to be completely healed to remain a viable outfield option, but in fact this injury could be a blessing in disguise for the youngster.  While he might have made the Padres as a fourth outfielder Guzman will likely benefit from one more minor league tune up season.

Late additions:  Two center fielders warrant immediate consideration, and would likely rate near the top but were left off the list for very different reasons.  

Todd Donovan might have been the most frustrating prospect San Diego has had in a long time.  He tore up Lake Elsinore in '01, then bombed at Mobile in '02.  In 2003 injuries and frustration begat a .202 batting average, but in 2004 he was off to a superb start before breaking a bone in his hand that knocked him out for the second half.  Finally healthy again Donovan looked to be in a position to capitalize on Guzman's injury and claim the starting center field job in Portland but now looks as if he'll be battling for that position.  An injury free 2005 could put this speedster, he just won the 60 yard dash competition this Spring, back near the top of the Padres depth chart.

While Donovan might have been a shoe in for the center field job in Portland, that job now appears to be Adam Hyzdu's for the taking.  Acquired from Boston in a trade for Blaine Neal this week Hyzdu has spent parts of the last four seasons with Major League clubs, bouncing from the Pirates organization to the Red Sox and now the Padres.  Though he has an outside shot at making the 25 man roster with the Padres, he seems destined to start the year in Portland and wait his turn for another shot in the bigs.  He has just average speed for a centerfielder but is solid defensively and has shown above average power.

Email James Renwick at


MadFriars Top Stories