Bud Black Talks Versatile Infield, Injuries

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Bud Black makes some of his own entertainment with the media on the first rain day of 2015 spring training, but gets serious when talking about his versatile infield and the back end of the Padres bullpen.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The weater outside may have washed away much of what the San Diego Padres wanted to accomplish on Monday, but inside, manager Bud Black was a veritable ray of sunshine. Asked who would start on the mound on Friday against the Chicago White Sox, Black said it would be a surprise.

“There’s got to be a curiosity factor out there for everyone, right? It’s like opening a present. Don’t want to ruin the surprise,” Black said.

The next question: Who would lead off Wednesday’s Cactus League opener against the Seattle Mariners?

“What if I said, Cameron Maybin? What would you think?” Black paused, as a mischievous rictus spread across his face. “Maybin’s going to play Wednesday. I went against one of my rules. Better scratch that, because I usually tell the player first, before I tell the assembled media.”

After being asked about his versatile crop of infielders, including one Will Middlebrooks, Black mused that he’d never had four Wil(l)s on a team before – Middlebrooks, Wil Myers, Wil Nieves and Will Venable.

“We lead the league in Wil(l)s. How many of them spell it with just one L? Two? That’s incredible,” Black opined.

One of those Wil(l)s – Middlebrooks – said on Monday morning that Black wanted him to take 100% of his reps at third, and 20% of his reps at first.

“Yeah, whaddaya think of that?” asked Black, who questioned the media almost as much as the media questioned him. “That’s like an old coach, saying, ‘Hey, can you give me 110 percent?’ We said that yesterday. He said that today? He’s got a good memory. I like that. We’ve told the same thing to [Yangervis] Solarte. Yonder [Alonso] projects to be our first baseman, and we want Yonder to be our guy. Depending on the makeup of the club, if we want some versatility, Will has I think a few innings at first base, Solarte has some games at first base, just trying to open up the possibilities for these guys if it couldhappen, so it’s not totally foreign.”

The majority of Middlebrooks’s innings and games, though, as well as Solarte, will be at third. Clint Barmes -- who has also played first – will take reps there, as well, though he’ll “move around the diamond.”

“In the course of a game, you never know what will happen,” Black said. “Yonder sprains his ankle, he’s out for a couple days, it’s not a DL situation but he can’t play on a given night? You need a first baseman. If [Tommy] Medica’s not on the team, or a true first baseman, you’ve got to have some options.”

The Padres certainly will have options at first, as upwards of 10 players have taken reps at first this spring. He went around the media room to see if each media member could name at least one, “just for fun,” he said. Media briefings with Black on a rain day: Nothing like them.

The group came up with the following list: Alonso, Medica, Carlos Quentin, Solarte, Middlebrooks, Cody Decker, Barmes, Brett Wallace, Will Venable and Jake Goebbert.

As for the rest of the infield, there are myriad possibilities.

“We’ve had that with our clubs the last couple years. The versatility amongst our group, this year, seems to be no different, if you look at all of our guys, even if you take Yonder out of it,” Black said. “If you look at Jedd [Gyorko], if you look at Alexi [Amarista], you look at Clint [Barmes], you look at Yangervis [Solarte], you look at Will [Middlebrooks], you look at [Cory] Spangerberg, you’re looking at guys who can move around the diamond. Even though Middlebrooks has just played third in the majors, he’s going to get some work at first. If he makes the team, he could be our third shortstop. This guy played shortstop all the way through his amateur career, and then the Red Sox moved him to third when he signed.

“Barmes, all over the infield, first base, we’ve seen Alexi move all over the diamond. We’ve seen Jedd start major league games at second, at third, and he did them both in the minors. Spangenberg, a second baseman, last year, we converted him to third, he can go back and forth. He’s played games in the outfield, so, yes. Very versatile.”

•••••

Those players didn’t get a chance to take any grounders, though, on a soggy Monday. Instead, the day was focused on cage and classroom work.

“We got a lot done. We hit in the cage. Guys got a lot of swings. The cage doesn’t replicate what can happen on the field, but they got their reps in, they got their swings in,” Black said. “The group of pitchers that were throwing today, we couldn’t throw on the field live batting practice, but got plenty of work in the bullpen area.”

Pitchers did throw to hitters, but only as stand-ins, as position players worked on getting their eyes in, tracking pitches, and pitchers got a feel for the strike zone.

“There was a workout component in the weight room for the guys, so on one hand, it was probably good for the pitchers to have a little bit of a break,” Black said. “This was a lighter day for them, off the field, especially for the group that threw yesterday, but that’s a good thing to get their arms a break. There was a positive component to ta rain day. It was a good mental day, and we got a lot done with our signs, with our defensive signs, our offensive signs, Hoffy [Glenn Hoffman[ to the hitters, our bunt play signs – reinforced those – and all the catching signs. A lot of classroom-type work today.”

•••••

As for the team having a bit of a lighter day, it was of some benefit to the Padres’ overall health, though the Friars came into the day fairly healthy, to begin with.

“Everything’s fine on the health front,” said Black, who’s team lost the fourth-most man games in Major League Baseball in 2013, and lost 1,649 man games in 2014 – second only to the Texas Rangers. “The only guy that’s been a little restricted is Casey Kelly, but he’s doing much better, so that's a great thing. He’s soon to be back on the field, resuming activities, and we’ll monitor again where he is with his throwing, just based on how his legs feel, but he’s doing much better.”

Kelly – returning from Tommy John surgery as one of five Padres to go under the knife in over the past two seasons – is emblematic of the woes the Padres have faced when it comes to injuries.

“The Tommy John’s, that’s jus tsort of popped up the last two or three years,” Black said. “Even prior to me getting here, and the first number of years I was here, we didn’t have any Tommy John’s. Then, all of the suddne, here they come. You look at other clubs, we’re the same. Obviously, there’s going to be some team that has the most injuries over the last five years, and some team with the least. We’re in there, somewhere, not heavy one way or the other.

“As an organization, we continue to look at everything. We look at our programs, we look at our minor league programs, our offseason programs, we do a lot of studies on anatomy, on exercise, strength and conditioning. We’ve covered all the phases. We’ve tweaked a number of things – too lengthy to really write in one article, but believe me, we’ve changed a lot of things.”

Though Black at first demurred when asked if there’s a link between the rise in Tommy John surgeries being performed, and the emergence of yearlong amateur baseball from youth leagues through college, he eventually did open up about subject.

“This is a bigger topic than just San Diego Padres baseball, rain day, March 2,” Black said. “I get that. I’d love to tell you all my thoughts on it, but I think in general, without getting on a soap box, here, players are bigger, stronger, faster than they’ve been before. The forces, the weights the torques on bodies, the football collisions, the basketball speed, the speed of baseball velocity, the bigger players banging into each other, it’s part of competing in sport. On the pitching side, I do think there is a component – I would say in the last 10 years, and really the last five years – of year-round baseball affecting players, no doubt about it. I like reading about what doctors say about year-round pitching, pitch limits and time off and all those things. It’s good stuff, good reading to me. It might bore others, but I like it. I do think there is something we have to keep an eye on. I do think doctors and people involved in amateur baseball are really trying to do the best they can.”

•••••

The back end of the bullpen was addressed on Monday, with Black noting Joaquin Benoit’s versatility at the end of games, perhaps leaving a little bit of wiggle room should either Brandon Morrow or Odrisamer Despaigne not make the starting rotation.

“I think this has happened over a long period of time, with a guy who’s now 38-years old, has pitched in the major leagues a long time,” Black said of Benoit bringing experience as both a closer and a set-up man. “I remember Joaquin when he was young, pitching with the Rangers as a starter and reliever, and then moving a little bit from team to team. Again, I think it’s more, with him, I think he’s always had the ability to pitch late in games, based on his talent, based on his stuff, and his repertoire of pitches. The mindset of a closer doesn’t happen overnight for a lot of guys. I think he’s a guy that developed that later in his career, but I think where he is now, experience, wisdom, age, has maintained his stuff, so I think the clearness of thinking, how to get those last three outs, heartbeat, are all where they need to be to be a successful back-end-of-the-game pitcher, closer or what he’s done the last couple years – bouncing back and forth.”

As of now, there’s no plans to move Morrow to the bullpen. When Morrow and Black spoke this offseason, he expressed his desire to be a starter, and Black told him that the Padres would give him every opportunity to be just that.

Morrow, though, does have closing experience, and some very good closing experience, at that. In 2008, Morrow recorded 10 saves for Seattle, with a 3.34 ERA and a 1.144 WHIP. The next year, though, in Toronto, he went 10-7 with a 2.96 ERA and a 1.115 WHIP as a starter.

As for Despaigne, in 2014 he went 4-7 in 16 starts with a 3.36 ERA in 96.1 innings of work, walking 32 and striking out 65 in his first year in the Major Leagues after defecting from Cuba.

“This is a fellow that, again, has made tremendous strides, coming from really a foreign country, and getting acclimated to the states and Major League Baseball here in America, and that’s not an easy chore,” Black said. “Baseball’s baseball. He feels most comfortable when he’s on the mound; there’s no doubt about it. This guy’s pitched before, he’s pitched in international competition. He’s pitched in front of big crowds. He’s pitched in very competitive leagues in Cuba, so he’s no rookie, in that regard – a rookie by Major League standards, but this guy is seasoned. I like his arm, I like his stuff, I think he’s going to be durable. He’s a strike-thrower, he knows how to get his outs, he knows his game. Tremendous pulse, doesn’t scare off, calm, poised, fields his position, there’s a lot to like, a lot to like.”


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