Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Some of the Padres prospects stand a good chance of looking back on March of 2012 in Peoria, Arizona as having been a great part of their salad days, to steal a wonderful and memorable phrase from a certain Coen brothers film. There is usually a larger subset of non-roster invitees who are not necessarily designed to make the big club roster out of spring training, but to get the opportunity to play alongside the veterans. This is done for a lot of reasons, primarily to introduce players who are likely to make the big club within a season or two to major league hitting and pitching, but also to feature prospects that could become important pieces in potential trades with other clubs. Either way, it's a lot like the first time you - as a kid approaching adulthood - were invited to the grown-up table on Thanksgiving Day or perhaps Christmas dinner. The grown ups aren't just veteran players and big league coaches.
Persnickety scouts, jaded and cynical, sit in a group somewhere near behind home plate, radar gun in one hand and a voice recorder in the other. They grade on a 20/80 scale for the most part (some organizations go 2/8, same thing while just dropping a zero), rental cars full of luggage, sleeping in cheap motels with free wifi so they can easily email scouting reports, those guys have every bit as much to do with baseball as any top-ten prospect. If you're lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, perk your ears up. You won't regret it.
So, of the almost 20 players on the Padres payroll that are non-roster invitees (the official list will be forthcoming, patience, sweet patience), the vast majority are going to be prospects. Ever heard of Joe Wieland? You will. He already has three pitches that are legitimate, a must for any true major league prospect. He also pitched a no-hitter in the minors, went all nine innings. He did that pitching for his old organization, the Texas Rangers AA club, the Frisco RoughRiders. And he did that against the eventual AA Texas League Champions, the San Antonio Missions. The Missions, in case you are curious, are part of the Padres organization. Wieland was stellar that day. Several days later, he found himself donning a Missions uniform, along with his pal, Robbie Erlin.
Both Wieland and Erlin will be in San Diego come August, count on it. Scouts look at starting pitchers from two angles. First, they look at that fastball. It doesn't necessarily need to be 100 MPH, although that doesn't hurt. You can throw 92, that's just fine, you'll get a 60+ out of most. But if you're a starter, you need a couple of out pitches, pitches that make a hitter think at the plate. Hitters are capable of sitting dead red on a fastball in the bigs, mess them up with something off-speed, especially if you can make it break, and you have the opportunity to screw things up. The faster the fastball is, the more effective the change-up is, nothing works better than to take a long stroke away from a power hitter, making him shorten up not knowing what you're going to throw.
Why the third pitch? Because, as a starter, you'll face that big giant oaf of a home-run hitter more than once in a game if your stuff is working. You show him heat, you show him a pitch that's a lot slower than your heat, but if you can also show him something that breaks a foot-and-a-half, then you're giving that guy a lot of possibilities to try and expect something he could hit, meaning that it reduces his chances to guess at what you're going to throw next. Toss in the awesome and purposeful location of your pitches. Bingo. Welcome to the Big Leagues, Mr. Wieland and Mr. Erlin.
By the time you see those two in August, you'll already know all about them, that's our mission statement, pun intended.
Wieland and Erlin are just two. When the Padres traded Adrian Gonzalez, the major two pieces in return were Anthony Rizzo and Casey Kelly. Rizzo was traded to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner, so we'll consider Cashner and Kelly. Cashner will likely start the season with the big club; A fastball that touches 100 MPH is not simply an attribute of a promising prospect, it's a nuclear missile poised menacingly on a launching pad, the Padres will employ it early and often. Kelly is still developing that third pitch, but he'll be in Peoria, testing it, spinning his magic, he'll be a Petco accessory soon enough (you can print those street banners now, I promise you).
Jedd Gyorko is close, he'll be in Peoria, maybe he's a full year away, maybe less. Jaff Decker, man that is some awesome power there for a guy shorter than I am (and a brother that plays in the same organization, Cody is hilarious). Jonathan Galvez, a speedy second baseman with some pop in that bat, is he a target to beat out highly-touted prospect Cory Spangenberg for a future job at second base or is he simply a moveable piece in a suddenly-dynamic farm system? There's a long list of possibilities.
Peoria isn't practice. It's a testing ground. It's the Bikini Atoll. Odds are good that the Padres front office already has the opening day 25-man and 40-man rosters set. But that's in pencil, it can be erased. For the prospects, you can bet that those guys are focused a lot more on the eraser than on the point of the graphite tip. For the fans, it's a chance to peer into the window and get a glimpse of the Padres future. That's priceless, right there.
After many hours of surgery Wednesday, all reports are that Tony Gwynn's procedures were all a complete success. After the removal of a cancerous tumor, and after nerve grafts were completed, several biopsies were taken to determine if any cancer was remaining in Mr. Gwynn's system. All tests were entirely negative as to cancer, and the early prognosis on the nerve surgery is entirely positive. Great news, indeed! All of San Diego rallies around you, Mr. Padre. The love you have given to this community can never be repaid, but obviously, the love shown for you by San Diego speaks for itself. Can't wait to see you coaching SDSU again, Tony, take your time, but hurry up.
On the media front, just wait a week. Every day, someone in media will say something about Fox Sports and $30 million the first season. The latest has the deal being approved in the first week of March. Fine. So long as it's before the first week of April, we'll not miss a beat. Regardless, know that Enberg will be calling the play-by-play and Grant will be your analyst. At least there's some sort of continuity in that. Odds on Enberg's first reference to the "warning path" (rather than the "warning track") before Cinco de Mayo stand at even-money. From where I sit, nothing but love for Enberg (who I loved growing up in Los Angeles listening to Angels broadcasts), who should be positioned to sit beside Coleman (nothing I could write could possibly portray how much respect I have for Mr. Coleman here) for at least a few broadcasts. And, yes, I watch It's a Wonderful Life every Christmas. Don't you?