A big year for a smaller McAnulty

Years ago, I heard the phrase "damning with faint praise" and wasn't quite sure what it meant. Now, trying to select the best hitter in Mobile this year, I have a much better understanding. Rather like winning the Jamaican bobsled trials, becoming the most potent offensive force for the Padres' Double-A affiliate was an accomplishment – but achieved against rather minimal competition.

In a tough hitter's league, Mobile is a particularly difficult place to hit. For the second consecutive year, the Bay Bears were last in team batting average. But more than a ballpark was in play for the club. They collected more strikeouts than they hits (1,157 to 1,123). They had 30 fewer stolen bases than any other team in the circuit, and their home run total was better than only two clubs.

While these facts make it easy to tab the offensive player of the year for Mobile, they shouldn't take away from what Paul McAnulty did in 2005. In fact, the accomplishments began before he ever arrived at spring training.

While he has been an on-base machine since he was drafted out of Long Beach State in 2002, there were lingering questions about his weight and athleticism. McAnulty answered those questions when he showed up in Peoria with the results of his off-season workout program: less body fat and a stronger core.

And he put his new physique to work in Mobile, leading the team with a .453 slugging percentage and .817 OPS. His performance, coming on the heels of a stellar year at Lake Elsinore in 2004, earned him a brief call-up to the big league squad in late June before he eventually finished the minor league season in Triple-A Portland.

Although he continued to strike out at a relatively high rate (66 in 298 Double-A at-bats), the left fielder who can also play first base had a strong showing in his first season against higher minor league competition. While he no longer looks like John Kruk did as a Padre farmhand, he can still swing it like Kruk and will likely get more playing time for the big-league club in 2006.

Several other BayBears made strides this year – but each of them has big question marks as well. Third baseman Corey Smith, acquired in spring training from the Indians, led the squad with 18 home runs and 73 RBI, but made contact too infrequently to stay on the 40-man roster. If he is to succeed in his step up to Triple-A, he'll need to continue to improve his pitch selection and reduce his strikeouts as he did in the Arizona Fall League last month.

Fleet centerfielder Kennard Jones, another product of the 2002 draft, got on at a healthy .375 clip and his 23 steals accounted for almost a third of the entire team's production. Batting leadoff, he finished second on the squad with 60 RBI, but his 112 strikeouts and the 14 times he was caught stealing both have to improve in Portland in 2006.

George Kottaras joined the Bay Bears at the start of August and impressed just as much as he had in Elsinore up to that point. Even as he adjusted to more challenging opposition and hitting environments, his on-base percentage went up slightly from his performance in the Cal League and earned him a trip to the Arizona Fall League and protection on the club's 40-man roster this winter. Although he didn't have enough at-bats with either of his clubs this year to claim the hitter of the year award, he remains one of the most promising position players in the system.

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