Batter of the Year: Eugene

The Northwest League is the initial exposure to professional baseball for nearly all of the Padres' high draft prospects. Occasionally, a player such as Xavier Nady or Cesar Carrillo will start off in Lake Elsinore, or a player will go to Fort Wayne more out of an organizational need, but Eugene is where the college stars learn just how much different the professional game is from any baseball that they have played before.

The biggest initial adjustment to pro ball is for the position players. The wooden bats, as compared to aluminum, demand a much higher degree of skill, giving the players a much smaller sweet spot to hit with and making it more difficult to make solid contact.

Combine that with the pitchers whom are much better and the grind of playing everyday, well, things become interesting.

The biggest adjustment, however, is learning how to deal with and overcome failure when you are no longer always the best player always on the field.

Position Player/Prospect of the Year for the Northwest League

Nick Hundley - Catcher

Hundley, 21, was selected in the second round of this year's draft out of the University of Arizona. Going into the draft Nick was ranked as one of the top five catchers, a combination of a solid defensive catcher who can hit with power.

This year at Eugene Hundley had a relatively low batting average of .250, but was one of the leaders in the Northwest League for on-base percentage at .391 and had a .453 slugging percentage. Hundley is a prime example of the new type of draft pick that is the future of the Padres‘ organization, a classic "Moneyballer", which means he may not have the highest batting average, but he will draw walks and has power.

In other words, the best way to evaluate Hundley is through his OPS numbers (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), not his batting average.

Jeff Kingston, the Padres Director of Baseball Operations, was very impressed with Hundley's debut, "He did very well for us this year. We were really with impressed the way he handled himself. He had some passed balls, from being a little over aggressive, but a very good player."

To Hundley, the biggest difference from the college game to the professional was emotion more than anything else. "College ball is more emotion, you can just beat people up, bat around and score as many runs as you can. Here with the wood bats and the way they pitch, it is a lot more individual. You have to go out and do your job, if you are not getting it done you're not going to get the leniency because someone is paying your bills."

Hundley struggled a little after going up to Fort Wayne in limited action, but should be the everyday catcher for the Wizards to begin 2006. Nick is a very talented player, but he has some tough competition ahead of him with catcher being the Padres deepest position.

Catchers such as George Kottaras, Colt Morton, Nick Trzesniak are in front of him and Billy Killian, 2004's number two overall pick behind him, will make the road to the Padres anything but clear cut. In order to stand out Hundley will have to improve more behind the plate and continue with his biggest strength offensively, his ability to mix power with a high on-base percentage.

Third baseman Chase Headley, 21, is nearly a carbon copy of Hundley offensively, hits for a slightly better average, although not quite as much power. Headley, a switch-hitter out of the University of Tennessee, had a decent initial campaign hitting .268/.441/.375 (batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage).

Kingston added on Headley‘s first year, "He got off to slow start, then got hot, but never really got on another hot streak. He was a little tired from the college season. He'll start next year in Fort Wayne. He‘s a pure hitter from both sides of the plate, and we like him a lot."

To Chase one of the biggest adjustments to the pro game was the defensive aspect of the game, especially at third base.

"There is a lot more bunting that goes on in professional baseball, than in college. College ball is about going up to the plate and taking a rip. With the wood bat there is a lot more "small ball", but your reactions still have to be real sharp, especially at third base."

As opposed to Hundley‘s position of catcher, the Padres are not very deep at third base. All of the third basemen in front of him having major question marks about their abilities as they advance to the next level. Headley, who has the most potential of any third baseman in the Padres' system right now, will be given every chance to succeed and could emerge as the top third base prospect by the end of the year.

After Hundley and Headley a sleeper candidate is shortstop Seth Johnston, out of the University of Texas, the college baseball champions for 2005. Very big for a middle infielder at 6-foot-3, 200 lbs, Johnston, 22, can play all the infield positions and in the last month of the season at Eugene hit .310/.460/.365.

Johnston started out slow, but as noted above finished up very strong. One reason for Johnston's slow start, he hit .159 in his first 17 games, was taking off two weeks from a very long college season in which Texas won the College World Series.

"It was a long season, I took two weeks off right after the season. When I was warming up here that was the first time I had picked up a baseball in awhile. The first at bats I was something like 4-for-50, so it showed, but since then I think I've played pretty well."

Johnston will be in Fort Wayne next year either at shortstop, or second base the position he played as a junior at the University of Texas. With a full off-season to rest, look for Johnston to put some quality numbers next year in Fort Wayne. If Seth can continue to improve his defense and hit with the .460 slugging percentage he showed in the last month of Eugene he will start drawing a lot more attention within the Padres organization.


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