Padres 2010 optimism springs from youth

Every season brings a new sense of zeal among the baseball population, and the San Diego Padres are no different. Buoyed by a strong end to the 2009 campaign, the Padres feel they can compete in the National League West.

The Padres have brought a new approach to go with a plethora of youth.

Spring Training showed a glimpse of the type of team they are trying to become – one that is aggressive on the base paths to push the opposition into miscues.

They attempted more stolen bases than any other franchise during the spring. While they will have to use caution to ensure the aggressiveness doesn't turn into recklessness, the mantra has been set – and is being applied throughout the minor league system.

"The most important thing is the win or the loss," manager Bud Black cautioned. "You're still playing a baseball game, whether it's Citizen's Bank or Petco. The idea is to win. I do think there is a certain style and a certain player that does fit our park."

While the team speed isn't exceptional, there are a number of players that have the wherewithal to be consistent threats.

Everth Cabrera led the team with 25 stolen bases last year, but the club had just 82 as a team. Expect that number to take a big leap forward in 2010 for Cabrera and the squad.

Will Venable doesn't have the raw speed of Cabrera but has the intangibles to be a threat on the base paths with his overall baseball acumen and ability to get good jumps.

"He's so athletic," hitting coach Randy Ready said. "He can see the whole field. The thing with Will is he just answers the bell with whatever challenge we put in front of him."

Tony Gwynn Jr. needs a bit of refinement on the base paths but has the speed and on-base prowess to routinely turn singles into doubles by hustling out of the box or stealing second.

Another smart runner is Chase Headley. Not exactly a burner by any means, the third baseman can snare a handful of bags through game knowledge. Kyle Blanks may be a behemoth but is fleet of foot and will take a bag when fielders are sleeping.

It isn't, however, all about stealing bases. Working the turns on singles to push the outfielder on a single is also in the cards.

"We are focusing a lot on base running," Padres general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We are focusing a lot on playing aggressively. I do think that in order to be successful in Petco Park, you have to be able to take the extra base. You have to be able to manufacture a run.

"It doesn't mean power isn't important. It doesn't mean pitch selection isn't important. You have to still get on base. That is the key to the game. When you do get on base, make sure you run the bases hard. Take the extra base."

The youth factor cannot be understated. Many contributors will be in their first or second years. That may be a limiting factor to their success or a springboard due to the eagerness they display on a daily basis.

Blanks' body is packed with power and will be counted on heavily to help protect All-Star Adrian Gonzalez. He is one of the few players who won't be impacted by the dimensions of Petco Park. At 23, though, is it too much to put such a heavy load on his shoulders?

The transition of Headley back to third base has sparked his offense – reminiscent of his 2007 season in San Antonio – the Padres Double-A squad – when he was named Texas League Player of the Year. His line drive approach has seemed to pay dividends, as he netted 23 RBI in 21 spring contests.

"The hardest balls that you hit are line drives," Headley said. "Home runs come on balls that you just missed that end up being back-spinned and get up in the air."

Mat Latos may be labeled the No. 5 starter but the expectations for the right-hander are high, especially after going 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA this spring.

Latos has ace stuff. His maturity, a question mark in the minors, has taken a significant leap forward. He has the plus fastball, a nasty slider and has made strides with his changeup. How quickly he brings consistency to the mound will determine a lot in the win-loss column.

While he may not have the youth of Latos, Mike Adams is young in baseball experience. He has the arm to back it up from his bullpen position and could be a closer in waiting, if the team moves Heath Bell.

A mix of Sean Gallagher, Tim Stauffer, Luke Gregerson, Cesar Ramos and Edward Mujica will be counted upon heavily to hold the middle innings during tight games.

"If we have guys that play like they are capable, and as a group, meaning all 25 guys play well, we can do what we did the last couple months, and that's win a lot of games," Black said.

If the Padres falter and only get contributions from a select few, it could start the selloff early – with Bell and Gonzalez the primary targets of contending teams. If, however, the Padres play as a team and use their approach of aggressiveness and youth in parallel, they could find themselves in contention till the end.

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