Notes: Towers assesses spring so far

Notes: Towers assesses spring so far

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As Spring Training sits poised on the opening of the exhibition season, an offseason replete with speculation is about to come into sharper focus. It's a time of the year Padres general manager Kevin Towers greets with enthusiasm, a chance to see the research, instinct, gut feeling and gambles pay off on the playing field.

Before putting the early spring practices in the past, Towers took an opportunity to share some of the standout performances of the first phase of the '08 episode of Survivor: Peoria.

Identifying the search for a fifth starter, a left fielder and a full bullpen as the big questions, he acknowledged Shawn Estes as his "sleeper pick" for the fifth starter slot.

Perhaps an even sleepier pick is Wade LeBlanc, a left-handed pitcher who spent the '07 season with the Double-A San Antonio Missions, going 7-3 with a 3.45 ERA and striking out 55 in 57 1/3 innings while walking 19.

"LeBlanc looks great," Towers said Tuesday. "He's the one kid you want to keep an eye on. I wouldn't be surprised [if he grabbed the fifth starter spot]. I wouldn't bet against him. I saw him in Double-A last year, and the game I saw him in Frisco, I said, 'This guy can pitch in the big leagues right now and have success.'"

The 23-year-old native of Lake Charles, La., has a good fastball, a curve that he throws for strikes and a "wipeout change," according to Towers. Though he would be a long shot to jump to the big leagues this spring, manager Bud Black mentioned LeBlanc and right-hander Josh Geer as two pitchers likely to start at Triple-A but who, "because of their head and their style, could break through and be in a rotation.

"From what I've heard from my Minor League people, [LeBlanc is] very solid," Black said. "He's a great competitor. He knows how to pitch. He's composed. Very good makeup."

Looking for a break: Another Minor League standout fighting an uphill battle to win a spot on the Opening Day roster is first baseman Brian Myrow. A career .303 hitter through seven Minor League seasons with the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Padres, the 31-year-old left-hander won the Pacific Coast League batting title last year with a .354 mark, hitting 13 homers and 73 RBIs in 107 games.

"He needs some breaks, an opportunity," said Towers. "This guy won the batting title last year in the PCL. He's pretty much done everything that he needs to do in the Minor Leagues to prove to clubs that he's worthy of the opportunity to spend a full year in the big leagues."

There are two big obstacles standing in Myrow's way of advancing with the Padres, namely first basemen Adrian Gonzalez and Tony Clark.

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"The thing that's probably tough on him is he's limited in where he plays," Towers explained. "First base and a lefty bat off the bench. Most National League clubs are looking for a little more of a versatile type player. He's one of those guys that just has to have a tremendous spring and force our hand. The competition's going to be tough on him."

Myrow took two quick trips to the big leagues over the past three years, hitting .200 in 20 at-bats with the Dodgers in 2005 and hitting .100 in 10 at-bats last September with the Padres. He's still got options, so if he doesn't make it on the Opening Day roster, Towers is hopeful of keeping him in the system until he gets an opportunity to stick with the parent club.

Finest in the field: The Padres will play an intrasquad game Wednesday, edging closer to their exhibition season opener Thursday against the Mariners. But knowing his players can't get enough of the repeated fundamental drills that characterize the early part of Spring Training camps, Black promised to mix in some work on bunt plays at the end of every half-inning.

Players may be getting antsy for that feeling of game conditions, but you don't need to look far on the Padres' practice fields to see the benefits reaped from focusing on the fundamentals. Asked what pitcher is best at the pitchers' fielding practice drills, Black didn't hesitate.

"Greg Maddux," Black said, singling out the 17-time Gold Glove winner. "He takes it seriously. He practices very well. That's what I like."

Cactus League Breakfast: The Padres and Mariners hosted the annual Cactus League Breakfast on Tuesday, featuring brief spring updates by general managers and front-office representatives from each of the 12 teams in the Cactus League speaking before an invited audience of team personnel, stadium staff and volunteers, civic leaders and sponsors.

Towers went over some of the offseason moves that give him optimism for the Padres' season and briefly reviewed last season, pointing to the loss to Milwaukee on the season's final weekend as the hardest loss he could recall. Tony Gwynn Jr. got the game-winning hit against Trevor Hoffman, setting up the heartbreaking one-game tiebreaker with the Rockies. Towers also cited Scott Hairston as the current favorite to win the left-field sweepstakes.

The event was hosted by newly selected Ford C. Frick Award-winning broadcaster Dave Niehaus and his partner on Mariners broadcasts, Rick Rizzs. Other highlights included Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine pausing to go to his "happy place" before revisiting the Rangers' disappointing '07 season and Rockies director of baseball operations Jeff Bridich asking if there was a lawyer in the house after explaining that he tripped on a Peoria sidewalk while walking to In-N-Out Burger to get a salad Monday night. Witnesses confirm that Bridich's injury was pre-existing, calling into question his salad story.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.