Batter of the Year take II: AZL Padres

If you read, you know that all of us are into the minor leagues and we occasionally have some disagreements. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to selecting who is the best position player/pitcher/prospect at a certain level.

As with most things, there are quite a few points of view, namely what should bear greater weight how well someone performed for a given year, or which player has demonstrated the greatest potential for the levels above?

Generally the closer the players get to the major leagues, Double-A and Triple-A, the more important a player's statistics are. As you go lower in the minors, below Double-A, the criteria for evaluations become murkier, involving a wide variety of projections and terms such as "tools" and "makeup". How will a certain player's skill-sets project in the major leagues, or even at the next level?

Nowhere is this type of projection more difficult than at the Rookie League level when you are evaluating players that are usually at a minimum at least three or four years away from being considered for a promotion to the major leagues.

This year in the Arizona League the Padres had a player that fit the classic definition of a prospect, Kyle Blanks, aka "Gigantor". Banks, 19, was by far the most feared hitter on the Arizona League Padres in 2005, and probably for the entire league.

At 6-foot-6, and weighing in anywhere between 270 and 280 lbs, he ran a 6.9 60-yard dash. He played shortstop in high school, led all first basemen in the Arizona League in fielding percentage – you have an athlete, not just a big guy swinging from his heels and easily the most impressive physical specimen within the entire organization.

In his last two years of high school, Blanks saw himself as more of an on-base guy, than a power hitter [I know, I'm writing it and still have trouble seeing how someone that size perceives himself as a "Dave Roberts type"] hitting .551 and .486, but with little power. He hit only five home runs in his last year of high school. A 42nd round pick of the Padres in 2004, Blanks instead went to Yavapai Junior College and played in the wooden bat league Arizona Community College Athletic Conference. At Yavapai, Blanks began to retool his swing, to use his lower body more to generate the raw power that he is capable off, hitting .440 with 8 home runs and stealing 23 bases.

Blanks' coach at Yavapi, Sky Smeltzer described his ongoing transformation and changing his approach at the plate to Denis Savage.

"Kyle is a kid that can hit for average right now and as time goes on he will develop more consistency with his power. He has a lot of power in his swing and it is not something he showed in high school."

Blanks entered professional baseball with this new approach, which seemed to pay immediate dividends. After posting some truly super-heroish type numbers in June, .414/.455/.1.069, pitchers began to figure out the best way to pitch to Blanks, avoid him. Although Blanks saw very little to hit in his last two months of the season, his average hovered around the .270's, he still posted an on base percentage of over .400. He still finished the season leading the team in most offensive categories, including total bases, walks, home runs and RBIs.

Jeff Kingston, the Padres Director of Baseball Operations, provided a brief scouting report on Blanks, "He has unbelievable raw power (80 out of 80 on the scout scale) and can really hit a fastball. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to more breaking balls and off-speed stuff as the league adjusts to him, so his patience and plate discipline will be tested."

Blanks was second only to Javis Diaz for on base and slugging percentage of players with over 100 at bats on the team. Even though Diaz had better individual statistics, Blanks was the first hitter the other team's pitchers had to be concerned with. His biggest flaw may have been that he wasn't patient enough and needs to adjust better to off-speed and breaking pitches.

Blanks is the classic definition of high-end lower level prospect, tremendous potential, size, strength and speed with a lot of raw baseball skills. However, as his statistics indicate he is more than another player with a lot of potential to be good, he is a good player right now. So far the results seem promising, and hopefully the big team will continue to experiment with Blanks in the outfield to maximize his chances to make the big leagues.

Other players of note for the team in Peoria this year were catcher Billy Killian, 19, who began to show some of the promise that made him the Padres second-round pick in the 2004 draft. Killian hit right-handers at a .309 clip, but struggled in limited appearances against left-handers with a .167 batting average in 28 at bats.

Javis Diaz, 20, my colleague Denis Savage's Batter of the Year for the Arizona League, and as Denis accurately pointed out, had the best individual year of any of the Padres at that level hitting .352/.425/.510, with 24 RBIs in 39 games. Diaz also led the team with 19 stolen bases, only being caught five times, and may get a chance to be the leadoff hitter for Fort Wayne in 2006.

So why did I pick Blanks over Diaz? Of all the players who played for the Peoria Padres no other player combined the potential of greater things along with an outstanding individual performance in 2005. Diaz, with his speed and power has a bright future, but Blanks is a truly unique player that rarely comes along, especially in the Padres' organization.

So while I agree with Denis that Diaz had the best year, Blanks emerged in 2005 as not only the most interesting story, but also the player you will most likely hear about in the future.

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