Fuson on Lake Elsinore Storm prospects

We sat down with Grady Fuson, the San Diego Padres vice president of scouting and player development, to get his thoughts on this year's Lake Elsinore Storm.

Level: The California League is a hitter's paradise where pitchers find out what happens when batters finally get used to wood bats. If you don't hit here, you aren't going to hit at anywhere.

Conversely, if a pitcher can survive the rock hard infields and thin air, you may have a chance. Although Lake Elsinore is by far the best place to hit in the system, the park is actually relatively fair compared to other venues in the league.

Season Recap: The Storm finished 71-69, the same as Fort Wayne, and lost the final game of a best-of-five first round playoff series to the Lancaster JetHawks. Pitchers learn to keep the ball on the corners, pitch to both sides of the plate and change speeds.

This year, the Storm saw some very good performances from outfielders Cedric Hunter, Kellen Kulbacki and second baseman Eric Sogard. On the mound, the squad was led by starting pitchers Rolando Valdez, Nathan Culp and relief pitcher Mike DeMark.

Last year, we thought Cedric Hunter was much better than many other minor league writers, and this year he really put up some numbers. What was the biggest aspect of his game that you believe he improved upon?

Grady Fuson: It wasn't so much about what specific aspect of his game improved it was more of a level of a growth in personal maturity. He really found a passion for the game, a passion for wanting to get better, a passion for preparation and mainly just trying to get better every day. I think this year he showed that he could really play center, got great jumps and reads on the ball and made all the throws. Offensively, we have always thought he had something of a magic bat; he has a real gift for getting the barrel of the bat on the ball. His body is maturing; he's getting much stronger and is answering the call.

What was the reason for Kellen Kulbacki's slow start and subsequent turnaround?

Grady Fuson: Mainly injuries. He hurt his leg early in camp, which cost him most of his spring. When he was ready to come back, there really wasn't any type of spring training we could send him too where he could get some uncompetitive at-bats so we sent him to Fort Wayne. As you know, he didn't really light up the world there. We had some injuries and after a while he caught fire in Lake Elsinore. He had a really good year but most of those numbers were from mid-June on.

How does he look defensively, and do you think he has what it takes to be a major league right fielder?

Grady Fuson: About fifty-fifty. I think early in the year he took too many of his offensive problems out to the field and he was slow off of the ball. As the summer went on, his offensive game picked up and his defense got better. We have never thought that he is going to be a plus defender, but we do believe he can become a solid corner outfielder.

Where did Brian Joynt come from, and what do you think the reason behind his success was?

Grady Fuson: As you can see, he's always been a big physical guy when we signed him out of a small college program. He kind of got forced fed quite a bit of information last year, and we weren't really sure of what type of game he had. He did some things wrong mechanically, wasn't recognizing pitches and his timing was off. He went home and in the winter; he really worked his butt off and totally re-arranged his body. The guy is ripped and he got an opportunity this year and made the most of it.

Do you plan on keeping him at third base next year?

Grady Fuson: We are slowly weaning him off of third, getting him some time in the outfield right now in the instructs and also giving him some time at first.

In the pre-season preview this year, you mentioned how much you liked Eric Sogard who had a good year. What parts of his game do you think he needs to improve upon?

Grady Fuson: It's always going to be work for him defensively, but he was better at the end than he was at the beginning. He doesn't have the biggest range or quickness, which is why his pre-pitch routine is so important for him; who is at the plate, positioning, knowing what the pitcher is trying to do. He is a very instinctual player and should pick it up. I think the major league comparison that is the closest is Todd Walker; he is always going to be more of a guy who is seen as an offensive second baseman. Offensively, he is pretty clean, good hands, good pitch recognition, has some power and a good approach.

Mitch Canham had the type of year offensively all of us expected. What did you think of him defensively this year, especially his throwing?

Grady Fuson: I give him and Duffy [Dyer, the Padres catching coordinator] a lot of credit for working on technique and actions the whole year. He's improved quite a bit, but he still misses some balls that he should catch. We are working on improving his throwing techniques right now in instructs, and he is grinding through some pretty tough drills right now.

Left field was kind of an open position for the Storm all season until Luis Durango came up and really tore it up. He's won batting titles at three previous levels, what makes him such a good hitter?

Grady Fuson: He has tremendous hand-eye coordination, and when he swings the bat through the zone, he usually hits it. He can hit a lot of different pitches through the middle on the ground, which is what we preach. If you are going to hit the ball on the ground, that is the place to hit it.

Also, anytime a guy with his speed hits the ball the other way to the shortstop, it's going to be a bang-bang play at best; he has that type of speed. At the beginning of the year, he had some trouble in Fort Wayne with the inside fastball, which is what you want to do with a guy with that type of game, and, like every other challenge, he found a way to beat it.

How has he improved defensively this year?

Grady Fuson: You have to remember when we first signed this guy he couldn't throw a ball a hundred yards, so his arm has come a long way. He can flat out fly, and with little guys like him, there is always a tendency to want to put them in center, but right now that may not be the best place for him. It doesn't mean we are not going to keep working with him out there, but to be an everyday center fielder you really have to take good routes, and he isn't there yet.

Drew Miller has all the talent in the world but had a tough year, especially with his ERA and hits to innings pitched [172/134.1]. What does he need to do for his performance to begin to match his talent?

Grady Fuson: It's starting to get to the point with Drew its more about performance than potential, and he hasn't done it yet. We all know what he brings to the table, he throws 90 to 94, has a good breaking ball – but you are either going to get them out or you are not.

I still think he has one of the highest ceilings of any pitcher that we have in the system, but it's the second year in a row the same pattern – he doesn't like to pitch inside, which allows guys to hang over the plate, and that is really going to hurt him at higher levels. Many times his best stuff is over the middle of the plate. The bottom line is performance needs to count, and, right now, he has a ways to go to be ready to go to San Antonio, especially when you consider who else we have in our system.

You moved Ernesto Frieri into the starting rotation midway through the year. Was that an effort to give him more time to work on his secondary pitches and how have they come along?

Grady Fuson: Part of our goal was for him to put himself on the map. Last year, a lot of things came to fruition and he has earned the right to get more innings. The only way these guys are going to improve is get out there. We started him out in the bullpen, and when the opportunity arose, we put him in the rotation too see where he was in his development. We wanted to be careful; you never want to double someone's innings in a year.

Wilton Lopez split time between San Antonio and Elsinore. As a 40-man roster guy, did he make the strides you had envisioned this year?

Grady Fuson: In a lot of ways yes. We knew very little about him when we got him, we knew he had a good arm, nice sink and a breaking ball. We went ahead and put him in Double-A, which was a little bit of a shock to him, and it took him awhile to get comfortable. We wanted to put him in position where he could be groomed and when we sent him down to Lake Elsinore. We wanted him to pitch in the later part of the game with some intensity, and for the first month he was nearly unhittable. Overall, it was a very positive year for Wilton.

Finally Mike DeMark did a great job out of the pen for you guys this year. What do you think he needs to work on to move up?

Grady Fuson: With Mike it's just all about feel. We know he's aggressive, he throws in the right sequences, it's all about the feel of pitching, and I think he came through the season pretty well.

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