Name: Kyle Blanks
DOB: September 11, 1986
"Getting 100 RBI in successive seasons in any system is pretty amazing," Padres director of minor league operations Mike Wickham said.
Selected in the 42nd-round in 2004 as a draft-and-follow, Blanks signed days before the 2005 draft after attending Yavapai Junior College in Arizona where he won Player of the Year honors.
As a member of the Arizona Rookie League Padres in 2005, the slugger hit .299 across 48 games with seven homers and 30 RBIs. All seven of his bombs came across the first 14 games, including a homer and six RBIs in his professional debut. He also notched 25 walks compared to 49 strikeouts for a .420 on-base percentage.
The New Mexico native spent the 2006 season with Fort Wayne, hitting .292 across 86 games before a staph infection cut his season short. He has 30 extra base hits, including 10 homers while driving in 52. He also drew 36 walks compared to 79 strikeouts for a .382 on-base percentage.
His 2007 season was spent in the High-A California League. With Lake Elsinore, Blanks hit .301 with 59 extra base hits, including 24 dingers, across 119 games. He notched 100 RBIs and scored 94 runs. Blanks also drew 44 walks compared to 98 strikeouts for a .380 on-base percentage.
Leaping another level in 2008, Blanks tackles the Double-A Texas League. The first baseman hit .325 for San Antonio across 132 games, registering 48 extra base hits, including 20 homers, while scoring 75 runs and registering 107 RBI. He also drew 51 walks compared to 90 strikeouts for a .404 on-base percentage.
He ended the year third in the Texas League in hitting, second in RBI, fourth in on-base percentage, and fifth in slugging percentage (.514). He also placed fourth with a .408 wOBA (weighted On Base Average) and was second with a 102.2 wRC (weighted Runs Created based off wOBA) while his 31.1 wRAA (weighted Runs Above Average based off wOBA) was third best.
"The most impressive thing about Kyle is his ability to be a complete hitter for his size," former San Antonio manager Bill Masse said. "Most guys you see the size of Kyle Blanks try to hit the ball 500 feet over the light towers in left field. Kyle's not afraid to take a base hit to right field when he has to. If someone's not giving him a pitch to really drive, he's not afraid to stay inside the baseball and take a base hit to right. He's not afraid to shorten up with two strikes. He's one of those guys that, what impresses me the most, at times he almost hits like he's a leadoff hitter; he's just trying to get on base.
"Some people will go, ‘For a guy that size, he should be cutting it loose and not being afraid to strikeout.'
"My whole thing on that, especially in the minor leagues, I'd rather see him become a complete hitter first and worry about the power numbers later. It's only going to benefit you in the long run, especially when you get to the big leagues where the pitching's a little bit better and you've learned how to hit the ball to right center; how to take a base hit to right field on a curve ball away. That's, to me, his ability to be a complete hitter with the size he is, and the power potential that he has, it's probably the most impressive for me. Plus, he's not very far behind."
The 22-year-old – who played the entire year at 21 in Double-A – hit over .300 in all but one month during the season and hit .333 with runners in scoring position. A right-handed hitter, he hit .238 off left-handed pitching and .348 off right-handers.
Eleven of his homers came at Nelson Wolff Stadium – a park that routinely has a gust of wind blowing in from center field at 15-20 mph.
"Kyle has great talent and has awesome strength," former San Antonio hitting coach and current manager Terry Kennedy said. "I know for a fact, I don't believe, I know for a fact that he doesn't even know how strong he is and how good he could be. I think he's on this road to discovery still. He's only 21 and he just has so much strength that it's incredible. Plus, he puts the bat on the ball."
Blanks went on to play in the Arizona Fall League where he hit .254 across 20 games with a .430 on-base percentage.
An incredibly strong athlete, Blanks has light tower power but a swing that is more conducive to a high average than big-time power numbers. Because of his innate strength, Blanks will still hit balls out of any park but he doesn't try to hit for power.
His natural ability to shoot the ball to all parts of the field makes a high average hitter. Blanks takes what the pitcher gives him and will go the other way with pitches on the outer half and pull those on the inner half.
"The key is he has that foundation of being a good hitter first," Padres special assistant to the general manager Paul DePodesta said of Blanks' burgeoning power. "That will really help him going forward. The combination of size, age and performance really makes him a good prospect. Kyle has had a tremendous year and something that gets overlooked is that he is only 21, which probably gets overlooked because of his size."
Blanks had a tendency to drop his hands when the pitch was being thrown, making it hard for him to handle good fastballs middle-in. He made an adjustment to keep the hands higher so he could turn on the pitch and stay inside the ball.
"He'll get into streaks where he'll strike out, but generally he puts the bat on the ball," Kennedy said. "He does a great job. I did notice that he was getting, I don't know if it was from fatigue, or perhaps because he was getting a lot of breaking balls down in the zone, his hands had dropped down and then he was missing the fastball right down the middle. That's all the adjustment I made – it wasn't some great inspiration. I watch these guys pretty close and he just really finished strong. That's a good sign in that league where it's so hot that he finished as good as he did."
More interested in putting the ball in play than hitting the long ball, Blanks is still developing his power. With so much success already, the Padres don't want him to change his style. Maturity and the solid foundation he has will eventually lead to even higher homer totals.
Blanks doesn't have the quickest hands or bat speed but uses his whole body through the swing. Fastballs can beat him, but Blanks has good plate awareness and pitch recognition, giving him ample time to connect with his bat head.
A level swing keeps the bat head through the hitting zone, and he allows balls to travel deep before committing. There are times when he is prone to streaks and gets strikeouts in bunches.
Blanks has solid hand-eye coordination and probably should walk more than he does. He muscles some tough to hit balls, occasionally dropping in hits with brute force.
"He is a guy that has a tremendous amount of upside and is an interesting player," Wickham said. "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."
Blanks has enough speed to steal a few bases and is agile enough to move around the bases without clogging them up, despite his size.
Defensively, Blanks is an above average defender at first base. He moves well for a man his size and has the ability to save his infielders by picking balls out of the dirt. He has a strong arm that could play in the outfield – a move that has been questioned over the past two years. The current plan is to keep him at first base but that could change. The biggest question on any move would be how he can move laterally and make cuts on the fly.
"This kid is a very good athlete," Masse said. "He's got very good feet at first base; he's got very good hands. This guy's probably a touch above average first baseman right now. He's got an above average arm for a first baseman. He's a good athlete. He reminds me of a tight end in football; good feet, good hands, good agility. He's got that kind of package to him. To me, that's the next thing."
Size is still something the Padres keep on him about. At 285-pounds, the strength and conditioning team stay on top of him to keep him in game shape. He has managed to stay at a manageable weight but this always bears watching.
"He is a big, big man, and this year he really made some good development defensively at first base," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "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."
Getting a chance to play first base with the big league club was a boon for Blanks this spring.
"It is going to be good exposure for him to get a chance to play," Wickham said. "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. 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."
Conclusion: Blanks will head to Triple-A playing first base. With All-Star Adrian Gonzalez ahead of him on the charts, Blanks is in a tough position. He has the ability to hit for average and power at the big league level but is blocked. Still, the Padres are interested in accumulating depth at every position. Blanks' success gives them innumerable options.
After hitting 20 homers in a tough league, Blanks may very well blossom in the Pacific Coast League. His talent could force the Padres to make a decision – trade him or Gonzalez or begin a transition to the outfield. Trying to place Blanks in the outfield – see Chase Headley – will take time to accomplish. Either way, Blanks has a place at the highest level and his work in 2009 will dictate which way it eventually goes.
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