The San Antonio Missions play in one of the more pitcher friendly parks in the Texas League, and easily the best place to pitch in the organization. When the wind blows in from right field on the hot Texas nights it kills about anything hit in the air.
Season Recap: The Missions had the best record in the system at 75-65 but ended up being swept by the Frisco RoughRiders in the first round. This season, Kyle Blanks and Drew Macias led them offensively. The pitching staff also shined with a resurgent Michael Ekstrom and strong performances by Matt Buschmann, Steve Garrison and Greg Burke.
First question is the one we get asked the most at Madfriars.com.
Grady Fuson: [laughs] Let me guess, about Blanks moving to the outfield?
Hey, if I don't ask that question we are going to have a major revolt. I remember what you said last year about asking me how many 285-pound outfielders I know that are running around major league outfields, and honestly the only guys I can think off are Adam Dunn or Carlos Lee, which kind of makes your point. However, Blanks is one of your top prospects, and fans of his want to see him and Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego but don't think that is going to happen with Gonzalez at first base.
Grady Fuson: Well, you know I understand that, and I'm a fan of Blanks too. He is a big, big man, and this year he really made some good development defensively at first base. I have never said that he won't go play the outfield, but we have built some depth in our system with the outfield I think with [Chase] Headley, [Will] Venable and some other guys, so right now he fits much better for us at first base. Also, a big question is how do you define ‘athlete'? No one doubts that Kyle runs and moves very well for a man his size, but there is always that qualifying statement; ‘for a man his size.' Everyone can see his speed, but how well will he hold up when he has to cut or move laterally?
In the end something could change and we could end up with him in the outfield, but right now, for next season, he will be at first base.
Chad Huffman hit much better on the road than at home this year. What kind of year do you think it was for Chad and what do you expect out of him next year?
Grady Fuson: Most of the year it was the year we were hoping to see. We sent him back to validate the skill sets that we saw. Right now, San Antonio is kind of developing a PETCO mentality, it's a difficult park to hit in, and we really are trying to impart to our young hitters that we don't want them short changing their approach because of the park. We don't expect to see the same numbers as we would in the Cal League, but if there is a problem, that is up to us let them know. We want them to maintain their approach because once you go the PCL it's a different animal.
As for Chad, he is one of those guys that just can't get enough of the game. He's already down in instructs ten days early wanting to get going.
The best rebound season this year may have been from the guy you said would go from "suspect to prospect" Sean Kazmar. He struggled the first few months and then really started to hit. What are the reasons for this and what are the Padres plans for him next year?
Grady Fuson: I don't know why I want to continue to love this little guy, but I've always believed that he can play. He just hasn't been able to put all of his talent together into a consistent performance offensively yet; defensively he's been pretty good. He has the ability to be a good hitter, use the whole park and has enough strength to hit with some power. This year, for the first two months, he was rattling around .190, and it was a testament to his character that he kept grinding until he turned around. He got called up to San Diego when Khalil [Greene] went down because we needed some depth.
He's made some strides this year and with a lot of these guys, you just never know when that light is going to go on. We couldn't get him into the [Arizona] Fall League as a regular shortstop, so we are going to give him some more looks at different positions so that we can increase his chances to be in the majors.
Another reclamation project who has put himself back on the prospect map was Drew Macias? What were the reasons that he seemed to "buy" into the hitting philosophy more this year?
Grady Fuson: I think he's always bought in, but it was a question of how to get there. Every year, he has taken a step up in the number of walks that he has drawn and then we also see the power numbers go up, which is really what the whole program is about. This year he walked 80 times, when he used to walk 40, he's gotten stronger, more disciplined and continues to work on his hitting skills and its paying off.
The biggest surprise on the mound this year had to be the reemergence of Mike Ekstrom. Why and how did he improve so much after he was moved to the bullpen?
Grady Fuson: That is one of the magical questions in our business. There comes a stage when sometimes a pitcher can only take so much as a starter. From the time he's been up in Double-A, he's been very inconsistent for how much we think someone like Mike is capable. You don't really know what did or did not happen to him as a starter, but coming out of the bullpen he prepares himself every night, fires everything full blast, doesn't worry about three pitch sequences or about getting tired; he just goes out there and lets loose. Some guys react better to this move and others, but at times this guy really has major league stuff in some of the bullpens that I've seen.
Will Inman put up some great strikeout numbers, led the Texas League, but he struggled with control, also leading the league in walks. Why did he struggle with his control so much this year when he's never had problems with it before in his career?
Grady Fuson: He's a very unique guy who has a lot of moving parts to his delivery and style, which is tough to maintain for accuracy. In the spring, he wanted to lower his arm slot, which we allowed, and it gave him a little more velocity but caused some other issues that he didn't have a year ago. His stuff is better with his arm slot, but his curve can still get him into trouble. He's very young and it was his second run through Double-A. There is still a lot to be tweaked and to be cleaned up.
Steve Garrison and Matt Buschmann put up some good numbers this year, especially Garrison when considering his age for the league. How would you rate their seasons?
Grady Fuson: Garrison was incredible. He comes out of the vault of so many lefties, not big stuff, has athletic moves and really learned to pitch inside. He has a very good feel for his slider, change and curve and a great mindset for pitching.
How about Buschmann?
Grady Fuson: He had a good solid year. Matt was in the top three or four in the league in ERA. He has a very deceptive delivery but kind of got away from using his change. Both he and [Stephen] Faris got caught up in trying to perform without it, and he knows he's going to need it to be successful at higher levels. It probably cost him about a half a year of development.
You moved Jesus Lopez up to San Antonio late in the year and his bat came alive. We all know how smooth he is defensively, but are we beginning to see his bat come around as well?
Grady Fuson: That is still to be seen because we really don't have enough at-bats to go on. Sometimes, you see players that struggle at lower levels find more success as they advance because pitchers at higher levels throw more strikes. He has a great glove, and if he can put it together with the bat, we could have something.
Gabe DeHoyos had a fantastic year in Double-A, and it seemed that hitters really had a tough time picking up the ball once it left his hand. Is it deception or simply command of his pitches that makes him so effective?
Grady Fuson: A little bit of both. We tried to find a way to test him in Triple-A, we just couldn't find the right spot. It was his third year of dominating Double-A. He pitches up in the zone like CY [Chris Young] does in San Diego. He has a big split and a downer curve and throws around 88 to 92.
Finally, why was Greg Burke able to have so much success as a closer this year?
Grady Fuson: A lot of things just came together for him. We signed him out of a tryout camp, and he was always kind of in-between with his breaking stuff. He started in Fort Wayne and just ran out of gas last year in Lake Elsinore where he was kind of a long man. That is what got him over the winter to make a real commitment to physical conditioning, he came back 15 pounds stronger and added two to three MPH to his fastball.
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