Name: Will Venable
DOB: October 29, 1982
After being selected in the ninth-round of the 2005 MLB Draft, mostly based on his athleticism, Venable spent 15 games in the Arizona Rookie League and dominated. He moved up to the Northwest League to play for the Eugene Emeralds and found himself humbled, hitting .216 over 42 games.
But the signs of life were apparent and no one expected him to take in so much knowledge and apply it to the field so quickly. And working against him was age.
"I think he was the most improved player this year out of the whole organization," Padres' minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "He put his name on the map. Last year, we knew he was an athlete but still searching. This year he put it altogether. For me he is on the fast track and hopefully ends up in Double-A. After that – who knows? If he does well in Double-A he goes to the big leagues from Double-A. For being an older guy, which I don't think he is, he gets to the big leagues at 25."
"Where he started to where he was going in the middle of the season and where he ended, great strides," 2006 Fort Wayne manager Randy Ready said.
The outfielder was 23 in Low-A Fort Wayne the naysayer cries. Second in the Midwest League batting average (.314), RBIs (a team record 91), and runs (86), in just his second season after playing basketball for much of his collegiate career is the retort.
"I liked his swing," Padres' scouting director Bill "Chief" Gayton said, helped in his evaluation by watching tape on him obtained from a local TV station. "He is a good athlete with a good body."
Venable placed in the top five in six offensive categories but it was the way he went about his assault that was so impressive.
He was consistent from start to finish with only one month producing an average less than .293. He hit left-handed and right-handed pitching equally well and it didn't matter whether the bases were empty or men were on base – his approach never changed.
"In Fort Wayne, I had Venable hitting in front of me for two months," teammate David Freese began, "hat was a complete privilege because that guy was always on base."
He also showed an ability to be selective, taking pitches to find one he could hammer. And, as the season wore on, Venable began turning his doubles power into homer potential, smacking six of his 11 over the final 30 games.
A left-handed hitter, Venable has a feel for hitting, aided by his work this past off-season with Max Venable, his father and also a hitting coach in the Padres' minor league system. He never tries to do too much with the ball but relies on his quick hands and pitch recognition to do the work. His bat stays in the zone for an extended period of time, giving him good balance and timing.
He worked tirelessly the year before with his dad and the results were evident in his patient approach and ability to connect with pitches he could handle. His walk totals rose from 16 in 57 games to 55 in 124 contests, as he worked into counts deeper.
The left fielder went on to lead the Hawaiian Baseball League in hitting this fall, batting .330 over 23 games, including a .429 mark with runners in scoring position. Only three players who qualified managed to top the .300 plateau in a league where the best hitting collective team average came in at .247. He also placed second in on base percentage at .390 and third in slugging percentage at .473.
"Will had a solid year out in Fort Wayne; he is a good athlete and brings a lot of ability to the table," former Mobile hitting coach Arnie Beyeler said while watching him in Hawaii.
As Venable matures into his batting – he is young in terms of hitting – he should continue to add loft and power to his game but the Padres don't want to change how he attacks the ball now.
"When I first coached William at home here in high school – he didn't play his senior year in high school or his freshman year in college," Max Venable explained. "Being a basketball guy, they had a couple of years where he went to the NCAA tournament.
"Seeing him in the Instructional League and spring training there was some gradual improvement there. But he had had some issues with his arm being weak. As far as offensively, there is no question that everyone thought he had a very nice swing. At Eugene, he really didn't put up good numbers there. In spring training everyone was asking me about him. ‘Hey Max, what about Will? What did you guys do this winter?' ‘We just worked on a good foundation.'
"Grady had asked what I thought about him. I said, ‘William is going to be a good player. He is an athlete. He just needs to be seasoned because he really hasn't played a whole lot of baseball. He is a basketball guy. He picks up things pretty quick.'
"He just needed some AB's and letting him play and with that he ended up turning in a pretty good year."
His success came with an invite to major league spring training this spring – a chance to learn from the big boys. His advanced maturity and makeup was just part of the reason and his education to the game could take a gigantic step forward from the short time with major league players.
Venable has good speed and base awareness. He tallied 18 thefts in 23 attempts and provides more than a threat. His natural athleticism and gift for picking up on the nuances of a pitcher aid to his base stealing prowess.
"Athleticism," Ready began, "He was our leader on and off the field. He was our go to guy. I think the players responded well to him and I think he responded well to the call and saying, ‘Let's get this done. Let's play to the best of our ability and see how it shakes out.' William did that all year long."
The son of hitting coach Max elevated his game in the playoffs, netting seven hits in 12 at bats with a .615 on base percentage but it wasn't enough to get the Wizards past the first round.
He has flashed a good arm that has carry and moves around well but his positioning and ability to read the ball off the bat remain a work in progress. Given time it is expected his outfield defense and accuracy on his throws will improve.
"He reminds me of David Justice," Bryk added. "I see him as a left fielder Dave Justice type.
"The more you are around him the more you like him. He is a leader. He leads by example. He is a competitor. I saw Tony Gwynn Jr. play and I wasn't crazy about him but the more I saw him play the more I liked him."
It helps that he went 6-for-19 on the major league side during spring training – elevating his stock even further.
ETA: Venable was brought along slowly in his first full season in the minors but the coddling will end this coming year. There is talk of moving him up to Double-A San Antonio to begin the 2007 season, showing how much confidence the Padres have in his maturity level and game. Given the fact that he succeeded immensely on the big league side of camp it seems a formaliry. He has too much talent to be held back at this stage and he has, so far, proven that his bat can carry him. Making his debut in 2008 is realistic with a shot at winning a job outright in 2009.