12/08/08 11:23 PM EST
Black optimistic about 2009 Padres
Skipper thinks experience will help players like Headley, Hundley
By Corey Brock / MLB.com
The queries have come from friends and family and even strangers, as Black was stopped in the line while checking in for his flight Sunday from San Diego to Las Vegas for these Winter Meetings.
What does Black, who is about to begin this third season with the Padres, tell everyone?
"Get on board early," Black said, alluding to, what he feels, is a crop of up-and-coming players.
"I would tell those fans that we're going to play good baseball. We're going to play hard. We're going to have exciting young players, we feel ... [Will] Venable, [Nick] Hundley, [Chase] Headley. We have some guys who are Major League-quality players."
Black was full of optimism Monday, the first day of the Winter Meetings, as he spoke with local and national media about a franchise that's looking at a reduced payroll that is expected to be in the neighborhood of $40 million with a strong possibility that their top pitcher, Peavy, could be dealt this week.
First and foremost, Black said, the Padres have to get back to playing better baseball -- both hitting and pitching. Those elements, he said, weren't where they needed to be in 2008, which largely explains the 99 losses.
The Padres finished near the bottom of the league in batting average, runs and on-base percentage and continually came up short in situations with runners in scoring position.
The best bullpen in baseball in 2007, anchored by closer Trevor Hoffman and steadfast setup man Heath Bell, struggled mightily in 2008, suffering 26 blown saves, 32 bullpen losses and an ERA that was more than a run higher.
"All facets ... we didn't play well across the board. We didn't pitch like we did the year before, both in our rotation and in the bullpen. [And] offensively, even though we didn't score a great deal the year before," Black said.
"We have to score more runs and get more guys on base, I think, our overall team on-base percentage, and we have to cut down our strikeouts. We have to advance runners more by putting the ball in play."
The second half of the season more or less turned into an audition for 2009, with several of the top prospects in the organization -- outfielders Headley and Venable, catcher Hundley and pitchers Josh Geer and Wade LeBlanc -- given looks to show what they could do.
Headley and Hundley, specifically, shined at times and figure to play prominent roles in 2009, if for no other reason than they will be more comfortable with their surroundings.
Headley will likely start in left field and Hundley figures to catch a majority of the time, with Venable likely coming off the bench. Geer and LeBlanc could win jobs in the San Diego starting rotation.
Black certainly expects more from this young stable of players in 2009.
"There's a lot of different signs that show that a player is maturing and the things they talk about," Black said. "More just total confidence you can sense, and the feeling that they ... you want to get to the point where they feel as though they belong and really believe."
Headley, regarded as the Padres' top prospect, was promoted from Triple-A Portland in June. He hit .269 with nine home runs and 38 RBIs in 331 at-bats, but he also struck out 104 times.
"Last year I saw a little bit of frustration over the amounts of strikeouts that he had last year, which is not uncommon for a guy that came in with such high expectations," Black said. "A lot was expected of him.
"I think his time last year will benefit him this year. This offseason, I think he'll reflect on what happened and realize that he does belong, and he'll be better off for it."
So, too, Black hopes, will be the Padres, who figure to lean heavily on young players in 2009.
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.