Padres Instructional League Notebook IX

What is the true importance of the San Diego Padres Instructional League? Forty-plus players have spent time in Arizona for the five-week session, working out kinks and getting a jumpstart on an off-season of change.

The magic word is change, figuratively and literally.

Hitters are changing their mechanics, altering how they see pitches, shortening strokes, getting better loads, and lengthening strides.

Pitchers are focused on the changeup and the benefits it provides.

But - is this just a glorified continuation of the season? Not quite.

"There are so many benefits to it," minor league field coordinator Tom Gamboa said. "It is the one time during the year that we get Spring Training they are pressing to make a team and are overwhelmed with 150 bodies out here. During the season they are concerned about their statistics, but during the Instructional League, the whole focus is on the process."

At one time or another, every prospect in the system has seen his name targeted for an Instructional League invite. It is the classroom of the off-season, preparing players for what they need to do to improve and allowing the focus to rest on exactly that.

Players invited to Peoria, Arizona to participate in the action are there for a reason. Deficiencies have been identified and the Padres coaches are there to help iron out those things.

" Since we have gotten a chance to know them for two months, we have been able to identify who the free swingers are - (Jeudy) Valdez and (Yefri) Carvajal as examples - and teaching them to be more selective," Gamboa said. "Carvy is seeing more than four pitches per at-bat down here and is hitting over .400. He is understanding that if he gets good balls to hit, he is a better hitter than if he is chasing everything."

The Padres philosophies continue to be the core of the doctrine being verbalized and shown through continued work on the field. That doesn't change. The methodology on getting through to the players might differ slightly but the fundamentals are the same.

It isn't just pitch selection either.

As Gamboa noted, finding out where a player struggles and helping them find the answer to their woes can span the spectrum.

"It is finding out that a guy like James Darnell had trouble with breaking balls - him and Brian Joynt," Gamboa added. "We are trying to get them to allow the breaking ball to travel deeper and don't pull it but hit it with the break. Darnell rifled a ball to left-centerfield on a breaking ball the other day."

On the pitching side, the results can be quite evident and the reiterations happen daily.

When success is generated, the Padres minor league staff can pinpoint the positives and accentuate them - thus making their point even more valid.

"If we got into the pitching part of it, this is a time where (Mike) Couchee, (Bob) Cluck and Bronswell (Patrick) can not just talk about the changeup but get a guy to use it whereas in the season, they are reluctant to use it because they want to get the guy out with something they know will work," said Gamboa.

"Jeremy McBryde failed for half a season at Fort Wayne because he had a typical guy's mentality that wanted to throw the ball by hitters. They realize hitters can hit. His first outing in Instructs, he threw seven straight fastballs and at 3-2 he threw a changeup and struck the guy out.

"Couchee tries to get across to him - 'Not only did you see how it works and how off-balance he was but it sends a message to the following hitter and gives them something else to think about. You just might miss locating a fastball and get by with it because the hitter has something else on his mind.'"

Without the constant pressure of having to perform, the atmosphere takes on a relaxed feeling. While prospects are there to work and get better, the environment is healthier than in season where the daily grind is equated to statistics.

Not to go unnoticed is the level of competition in the Instructional League is better than during the season. Teams are bringing talented players to the desert with an eye on overall improvement. Many of the picks were drafted high and need refinement with mechanics or a pitch.

Thus, the whole invitations serves multiple purposes in the grand scheme of things.

Strength and conditioning is introduced to the first-year players and a true off-season plan is generated to give each prospect an edge coming into the following season.

"There are a lot of ramifications of what the program is about," Gamboa said. "We tell them what they need to do to get better and focus on individual things."

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