Name: Will Venable
DOB: October 29, 1982
After hitting .314 in the Midwest League, Venable bypassed Lake Elsinore on his way to San Antonio. He ended up hitting .278 in a league that saw just four players top the .300 average mark. By all accounts, Venable had a solid season.
"Will just grinded and fought his way through the whole season," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Randy Ready said. "That is a credit to his competitiveness. This guy, coming from Low-A with a minimum amount of at bats in professional baseball plus college experience, and here he is finding himself right in the middle of our lineup in Double-A. He had a real tough workout coming out of spring. Was he going to survive or not? As mentioned, that is just Will's competitiveness."
The questions, however, remain. As an outfielder, Venable will be looked on to provide power. After clubbing 11 homers in 2006 – most coming late in the year – Venable was tasked with topping that number in the Texas League.
Eighty games into the year, Venable had clubbed just one homer. He would hit seven over the next 48 contests but the power consistency was not there.
Part of that can be attributed to skipping a level and figuring out the competition. Asking him to belt homers at a solid clip may have been asking too much early in the year.
It is clear he made the adjustments along the way, maintaining a solid average throughout most of the season – with just 670 at-bats coming at the lower levels before coming to Double-A.
And many believe the power will come, as long as he continues to maintain a solid approach at the plate. The feeling is the right mechanics hitting will eventually lead him to bigger power numbers.
"I still think he's a year away from learning how to turn on ball," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said before the 2007 season. "His approach is solid and he really understands what he is doing and what we expect him to do."
The Padres are hoping that turns out to be exactly the case.
"Not really, at least I don't," former San Antonio and current Fort Wayne hitting coach Tom Tornicasa said of Venable's power. "If the power is there it is going to show up. If you have power it is going to show up. If it is not this year it will be next year.
"If it is there and you are doing the right things at the plate eventually that power will show up."
Venable has had trouble using his legs properly in his swing, as his drive through the ball does incorporate a strong torso whip. While he gets the bat head smoothly through the zone, the extra drive forward with his legs and hips would add distance and carry to the ball.
During each of the last two years, Venable has worked hard through the year to get that timing and rhythm down – and both seasons have produced more home run power after the All-Star break when all his hitting mechanisms are flowing.
Despite this being his second season professionally, Venable held up very well after a grueling Spring Training that saw him hit well in major league camp. His competitiveness through the season put him out there nearly every single day – without complaint.
"He is a survivor," Ready added. "Every time you thought he was exhausted in number of games played he would say, ‘I am good. I am ready to go.' He really understands what he has to do to be a professional ballplayer. He wants to play at the top level."
And hitting for average was a plus after skipping High-A, but the lack of consistent power remains a concern as his physical maturity is at its zenith as a 25-year-old.
He ended up in the Arizona Fall League to end the year but suffered from a shoulder stinger. That same injury crept up on him in early February, and it required a shot. He rested it for nearly a week before resuming his throwing. Whether or not that continues to hurt in the coming months will determine if he needs to have it scoped.
With his dad, Max, a hitting coach, Venable has constant access to a willing teacher. Each off-season, he uses that available tool and the 2008 season could be the year he puts all of his tremendous athletic attributes together.
In January, Venable went through a rigorous hitting camp with Jim Lefebvre, working out the kinks in his swing to get his power numbers up early in the year.
"Will is a good kid - I like him," Venable said. "He puts a lot of pressure on himself to perform. He surprised me. He started out fairly well and maintained it through the whole season. He had his ups and downs just like everybody else but he had a good year. For skipping a level, he had a heck of a year."
In the outfield, Venable has improved his arm strength, although it is not what is traditionally associated with a right fielders. It is made better by positioning and accuracy. The Princeton alumnus puts himself in good throwing position, aligning himself with his throwing line to maximize his ability.
He reads the ball well off the bat and gets good jumps. His route running is also a plus. As a result, Venable is able to play all three outfield positions.
Venable might be have the best base running instincts of any player in the system. While he doesn't have the top-end speed of a Javis Diaz or Luis Durango, he is a smarter base runner than both combined.
With smooth, long strides, Venable gets going in a hurry, showing good first-step explosion. He reads a pitcher's move well and rarely gets caught napping on the bases, using his baseball acumen to ensure stolen base success. The result was 21 successful steals in 23 attempts.
ETA: It depends on his power. Venable has all the other baseball attributes that will make him a major leaguer but the power has to develop consistency. He is smart, has fantastic makeup and is a competitor. If he puts the power part of the puzzle together, he could vie for a spot in San Diego in 2009. The shoulder discomfort will also bear watching.