Lake Elsinore Storm 2007 season preview

Synopsis: The Padres' best offensive team. Combine that with solid defense and if the pitching holds up this could be the best Lake Elsinore team in a long time.

Three Strikes with Grady Fuson /Padres Vice-President of Scouting and Development:

There are quite a few guys on this team that are essentially skipping Fort Wayne, Antonelli, Huffman, Cooper, LeBlanc and Buschmnan. Any reason behind that?

Grady Fuson: Depending on the type of player you draft, a good solid college player if they come in that first summer and perform they should be able to handle the California League. They may struggle for a month or two, but they should be able to play at this level. Antonelli, Cooper, and Huffman they all bought into what we are trying to preach. We have tremendous depth at the lower levels and we needed to make sure these guys were challenged. We only kept four outfielders here and Cooper will see some time in the outfield as well.

Not only are you shifting Antonelli from third to second but you also are trying to move him into a different role offensively as a leadoff hitter. How has that been working out?

Grady Fuson: It's been going great. Matt has tremendous pitch recognition and knows the strike zone. When we drafted him I said I don't really know where he would end up, he's a great athlete and can probably play every position on the field. This year he will primarily be at second, but could also see some time at third and maybe even a little shortstop. I don't doubt his power, it's not that I think he's going to hit 25 to 30 home runs, but I see his power similar to Josh Barfield. He looks great; he's put on about 10 pounds in the upper body from last year.

Matt Bush was one of the better defensive players in the Midwest League in 2005, but offensively he was never sure of what type of player he was. How has his bat looked this year compared to years past?

Grady Fuson: He does have a great arm, maybe one of the best arms in the minor leagues, but he has a lot of work to do with his hands and feet defensively. It takes time with young shortstops, I can recall a lot of major league shortstops that struggled early with routine errors early in their career, but would then make the spectacular play. Offensively, he's had a very good camp, one approach, one stance and he's kept the ball out of the air. He came into camp better than he has in the past and did a lot of work in the weight room this winter.

Projected Lineup

1B Kyle BlanksSP Wade LeBlanc (LHP)
2B Matt AntonelliSP Matt Buschmann (RHP)
SS Matt BushSP Richie Daigle (RHP)
3b David FreeseSP Manny Ayala (RHP)
C Jose LobatonSP Brent Carter (LHP)
RF Nic CrostaRP Steve Delabar (RHP)
CF Yordany RamirezRP Brandon Higelin (LHP)
LF Chad Huffman RP Kyle Stutes (LHP)
DH Craig Cooper (1B/OF)Closer John Madden (RHP) Top Prospect in Lake Elsinore: 1B Kyle Blanks (#7)

Pitching: A good, but not great staff, which will be led by lefties LeBlanc, 23, and Carter, 24. Carter was really starting to turn the corner last year in Lake Elsinore when he developed an effective third pitch, a cut fastball, which he can thrown to right-handed hitters. In June, batters only hit .186 against him, and he only walked one out of 120 batters he faced. The organization is also high on fellow Crimson Tide star LeBlanc, another lefty with pinpoint control and not much of a fastball. Buschmann, 23, out of Vanderbilt was one of the Padres better picks in the later rounds of the draft. He struck out 63 batters in only 60.2 innings in Eugene while walking only 11 against 54 hits. Ayala, 22, went 5-4 with a 4.28 ERA last year with the Storm, but struck out 71 batters in 91.1 innings while only walking 12. He's got good size at 6-foot-4, 210-pounds and throws in the low-90s, but needs to develop his slider more.

Higelin was an All-Star as a middle relief pitcher in the Midwest League and put up some good numbers, striking out 62 batters in 67 innings against only 21 walks and 60 hits. Closer John Madden, 24, did his best in the limited opportunities with the Wizards saving 20 games out of 24 opportunities. Madden only allowed 39 hits in 51 innings, while posting a very good K/BB ratio of 48/19. Madden is the new prototype of the type of relief pitcher that the Padres are developing, someone who throws low and hard after seemingly trying to create little Trevor Hoffman clones with great change-ups who were getting shelled at the upper levels.

Position Players: This should be one of the best Padres' offensive farm teams in a long time, with a lineup full of players with patience and power. Blanks, 20, has the most long-range potential and had a solid year at Fort Wayne in 2006 .292/.382/.455, but Freese, 24, who had the best debut of any Padres' draft pick last year may be the one to light up the scoreboard at the Diamond this year. Between Eugene and Fort Wayne Freese hit .317/.395/.569 with 47 extra base hits, played a solid third base defensively [he had a .963 fielding percentage in 53 games in the Midwest League]. Second baseman, and last year's first round pick, Matt Antonelli, 22, is changing positions to take advantage of his athleticism and will continue his development as a leadoff hitter. Last year in Eugene, he showed an ability to get on base, .426 OBP, but not the power you expect from a third baseman. Cooper, 22, who will share time with Blanks this year at 1B/DH, kind of got lost behind Freese and Huffman but still hit .320 in Eugene. Last but not least, former number one overall pick Matt Bush, 21, will play shortstop after missing most of last year to injuries.

The outfield will be anchored by two power hitters, Crosta, 24, and Huffman, 22. After tearing up Fort Wayne last year, 382/.490/.667, Crosta slowed down a bit when he got to Lake Elsinore, 267/.342/.438, but part of that was due to adjustments in his swing the team wanted him to make to advance to upper levels. He should be more comfortable this time around. After Freese, Huffman hit .343/.439/.57 in Eugene with 27 of his 68 hits going for extra bases while demonstrating an impressive plate discipline, a BB/K ratio of 25/34. Ramirez, 23, returns to Lake Elsinore for his second go-around. Defensively, he is the best outfielder in the Padres system and last August he had his best month at the plate hitting 312/.346/.377. He needs to repeat more of those performances with the bat if he is going to make it any further.

On the Spot: Matt Bush. Lake Elsinore is the best place to hit in the organization and Bush must prove that he is able to hit to avoid being shifted to the mound.

Under the Radar: Craig Cooper hit .320/.418/.485 during his opening professional campaign and is the best defensive first baseman in the system.

Outlook: If you have to pick one Padres affiliate to visit this year, this is the one. They should be able to do everything you want in a ball club, hit, pitch and play solid defense. The Padres will probably keep most of the team together for the whole year with only Freese, Crosta and Carter as potential candidates for a mid-season promotion.

John can be reached at

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