Wickham on Padres top prospects

Director of minor league operations Mike Wickham is excited about the direction of the San Diego Padres minor league system. Each is being challenged in the coming year, and he talks about some expectations and who might surprise this season.

With Adrian Gonzalez playing for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, Kyle Blanks has an opportunity to get some at-bats with the big league club and get some exposure in front of the staff. That has to be a positive.

Mike Wickham: He is a guy that has a tremendous amount of upside and is an interesting player. For whatever reason, there are a lot of people who question whether he will be able to do it or not. They quote his size, his power as being interesting but also knock his size and power. He has a lack of rhythm in his swing and trigger. The truth is he has so much strength that he can make up for it and he did it and has done it. In Double-A at 21 years old – he is a young player that had an outstanding year in a very difficult park to hit in.

Getting 100 RBI in successive seasons in any system is pretty amazing.

I think it is going to be good exposure for him to get a chance to play. That is what he needs. It will be good for the big league staff to take a peak at him and see how he does in the big league games. I think he will do well. He is well-spoken, is low-key, and has the demeanor to be successful. It is his first camp so he will be quiet, professional and will have success.

Jaff Decker obviously had a tremendous season in Arizona. What are you looking for him to build upon in the coming year, presumably in Fort Wayne? Based on what he did, the expectations have to be pretty high.

Mike Wickham: With a guy like him, you are always guarded. You expect him to go to the Midwest League and compete, definitely. We expect him to continue to refine his approach. I wouldn't expect him to do the same thing he did in the Arizona Rookie League just because the talent incrementally gets a lot better. You start out in a cold weather league - I don't think he will put up poor numbers, as he was the MVP, so he will put up solid numbers just from the polish and plate discipline alone.

We don't want to put any undue expectations on any player. We are optimistic that he will go there and have success and be pretty good.

A few years back we sent Cedric Hunter to Fort Wayne. He started off cold but picked it up towards the end of the year. You create these expectations that Decker should now be MVP of the Midwest League and that isn't fair. I think he will be really good there. Fort Wayne can be a tough place because it is so freaking cold until mid-May.

He has tremendous discipline and a tremendous approach. We will see how that helps him out. He has the eye and the discipline to see the ball. He will be able to make any adjustments.

Cedric Hunter has one of the lowest strikeout rates in minor league baseball but he also doesn't walk a whole lot. That isn't necessarily good.

Mike Wickham: I want to see his walk rates at about 6-8 percent. I have been thinking a lot about this over the winter because he is one of our best prospects. I think there is a tradeoff there. A player such as Ced who has such a high contact rate – he just makes contact – he is going to walk less. He puts balls in play. It doesn't matter if it is a 0-2 count or 3-2 count. He makes contact at such a high clip that he won't walk a lot. As long as he is hitting for such a high average, and has a high on-base percentage, you can look at a player like him and say, ‘he might be able to have success without walking an above-average amount of time.' That is rare. There is a small group of players who can do that.

Most guys you would say have to walk above average to have solid power numbers. He hit 11 home runs this year and is an interesting center field prospect. I think he could hit 15 – just guessing and projecting. His contact rate is in the high 80's (percent).

I guess it depends on how many hard contacts he is making and at what kind of balls he is swinging at. If he hits a ball that is thrown outside of the zone and grounds out, his contact rate might not be a positive. If he is hitting good pitches, than the lack of walks can be overlooked.

Mike Wickham: He is not swinging at that many pitches far outside of the zone. His batting average tells you that he is not swinging at balls. For a stretch, he could swing at balls outside of the zone and get some seeing-eye singles, but he could not do that consistently.

I think you have to make an exception for the high contact rate. If he walked one percent of the time than that is bad. He has walked eight percent over the last three years, which is two percent less than what you would expect at average.

One guy who has the talent but there have been questions about the maturity is Mat Latos. Is it a concern and how do you remedy the situation?

Mike Wickham: With him, it is straight up maturity. We haven't had any off-the-field issues where he is in trouble. He is a colorful guy where his personality is out there. He is a young kid – it is more about maturity than being a bad guy. There have been bumps in the road – more related to rehab than anything.

One thing we can do is sit Mat down and say, ‘This is how pro ball works. You have certain responsibilities that we uphold. You need to be here on time, be at rehab on time, be at the bullpen on time.' It was a molding process. I am optimistic he will come out and do a great job.

When we send someone to Arizona to rehab, a lot of these guys are crushed. They want to get back to playing. You sit in the hotel, the super hot weather, you aren't in the competition and games to keep you focused – it is hard for anyone.

It is about maturity. It is about us wanting to help you. Take responsibility for your own actions. He is going to be a great pitcher. He has some of the best stuff in the system. He is going to end up shooting through with the help of our coaches.

Matt Antonelli had a down year but still maintained the plate discipline. Is this the one year you throw away because the approach has been consistent until the 2008 season?

Mike Wickham: The approach was consistent. He still walked; I think that he pressed mechanically. He pushed a little bit. His balance, his approach – he ws in and out of the zone too quickly with the bat. A few different things started to unravel because of the struggles of the year but I think you throw out last season.

You come into camp and it is a new year. He has to rebound from that and show us he has what we thought he had. He has the athleticism. He has the plate discipline. He has the makeup. I am going to roll the dice with that anytime. I would not count against him. Outstanding makeup – and he has the ability. I am going to say it will work.

Kellen Kulbacki had a terrible start – really for the second year in a row. Are changes being made or is he reverting back to what made him successful in college?

Mike Wickham: I think it is just a slow start. There aren't a lot of mechanical changes to make that happen. We have done some minor things with him.

A small sample size, he is probably just a slow starter. What he did in Lake Elsinore when he got there – we ended up moving him out of need. We didn't promote him out of merit. We asked who could handle this the best and sent Kulbacki there. We did have the conversation internally, ‘Can we promote this guy right now?'

It was probably one of the best performances in the minor leagues. He hit 19 homers in 54 games. He would have been the MVP of the league if he didn't have the shoulder issue. And he would have won the batting title but didn't have enough ABs.

I would guess he probably doesn't start slow this year. If he goes to San Antonio – which is a tougher park to hit in – it looks like the shoulder is healthy and that will build confidence for him. He has always been a confident hitter. When you have a stretch like that, you start to tell yourself, ‘I can play this game.'

Wynn Pelzer – everything and more than you thought? He was fantastic in the Midwest League.

Mike Wickham: I was pleasantly surprised. We knew he had a good arm. He came in and had the knee issue so he didn't pitch that first year.

He has an arm. He has a nasty slider. He is very intelligent. He has a good sense of humor, is well-spoken and intelligent.

I think he is going to be in that Lake Elsinore rotation and we are excited about we have there.

Chad Huffman didn't put up great numbers this past season. Was this a factor of the ballpark getting inside his head?

Mike Wickham: He is another guy with great makeup and an even keel.

He obviously had a down year there when it comes to power. I spoke with him and he told me the ballpark makes you think the way PETCO does sometimes. It got into his head a little bit. He still had a good approach with a .380 on-base percentage. He hit 22 homers the year before, but I think you will see that happen with guys who go to San Antonio. Even thought he left field line is short, the wind blows in pretty hard and suppresses runs.

I think he is going to come out and have a monster year in Portland. I am pretty excited about it.

If you had to pick a guy to have a breakout year this season for a position player and a pitcher, who would it be?

Mike Wickham: Lance Zawadzki was mine last year. He is a pretty exciting player. He has pop. I will go with Drew Cumberland as my breakout player of the year.

I think you could throw Aaron Breit and Drew Miller in the same boat. They have really good stuff, but I am going to go with Cory Luebke. It is the time for him to get going. He has incredible stuff.

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