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Healthy, optimistic Blanks enjoying strong spring

Young slugger could be on verge of big league breakthrough after long rehab

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MESA, Ariz. -- Kyle Blanks has a rebuilt shoulder and elbow, but perhaps more importantly, he's come back from adversity with a new philosophy. Blanks, who missed virtually all of last year and a huge chunk of 2010 while recovering from injuries, is determined to go through life as an optimist.

It's a simple change in perspective, he said, and one inherently tied to his struggles in baseball. Blanks knows that he can't control the past and that all he can do is approach the future with an open mind, and he credits his time away from the game with helping him correct his mentality.

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"There have definitely been some setbacks, but I've had a lot of time to reflect," he said Sunday. "All I've tried to focus on is the good and work off that. It's really easy to look at all the terrible things, but when you can overlook those things and look for the good, there's a lot to be learned."

Blanks, an engaging and thoughtful 26-year-old, would certainly have reason to be frustrated with his path if only he allowed himself to feel that way. He seemed right on the verge of making a big league breakthrough in 2010, but he blew out his right elbow and needed reconstructive surgery.

The hulking outfielder and first baseman recovered from that ailment and struggled through the 2011 campaign, enduring baseball adversity as opposed to injury. And just when he seemed ready to put that behind him, he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

Blanks, who stands 6-feet-6 and is listed at 265 pounds, spent much of last season recovering from his shoulder surgery before playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He reported to Spring Training in fine playing shape, and he said he feels refreshed mentally after missing so much time.

"I'm feeling good and my health is the big key for me," said Blanks. "I want to do everything I can to stay on the field, whether it's stretching more or getting here earlier to prepare. Longer days. Whatever it is, I'm always searching for that thing that's going to help me stay on the field."

So far, it's working. Blanks isn't just healthy, he's crushing the ball for a .400 batting average and an .767 slugging percentage through his first 14 games. The hulking outfielder hit his second home run of the spring on Saturday, and he said Sunday that he found strength in feeling powerless.

"The rehab process and the mental anguish that comes with being a baseball player was tough for me," said Blanks. "I felt OK, but I couldn't do what I want to do. Those hurdles are big, but getting through all that and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel was a big momentum swing in my life."

Blanks has been positively fearsome at the highest levels of the Minor Leagues, and he boasts a career .308 average with a .404 on-base percentage and a .568 slugging mark in 102 games at Triple-A. The trouble, thus far, has been bringing that production with him to the Major Leagues.

The slugger batted .250 with 10 home runs in 54 games with San Diego as a rookie in 2009, but he moved to the outfield full time the next season and began his spate of injuries. Blanks played first base nearly exclusively in the Minor Leagues but played in the outfield during his '09 audition.

"I definitely had a big change going from first to the outfield. And I would never say that's exactly why, but it definitely could've been a contributing factor," he said of the injury to his throwing elbow. "I'd say that my shoulder was definitely more from swinging because it was my left side.

"After playing long enough, in my opinion, there's no injury that's designated for one position. I want to say there's three or four position players in here that have had [elbow surgery]. The way I see it, it's an injury that can happen to anybody in baseball. Unfortunately for me, they were all reconstructive surgeries and long rehab, but it's nice to come out of it and feel better. And be better for it."

Blanks played in just four games with the Padres last season, and he's stating a claim this spring for a chance to make the team as a reserve first baseman and outfielder. And if he hits the way he's capable, Blanks could certainly emerge as a long-term option in the middle of San Diego's lineup.

That's what he hopes for, and it's an emotion shared by manager Bud Black. Blanks is still a young man with his baseball life in front of him, and the Padres want him to seize it while he can.

"I think that you never take this game for granted," said Black. "There's always work to be done to become a better player and not think you have things made. I don't think Kyle does [think that], but when the game's taken away for a significant amount of time, it [makes you] appreciate where you are when you do get healthy. I've seen Kyle -- especially with his motivation to go to winter ball and play -- he understands that he has a lot of baseball left to play. I think he's excited about that."

Blanks has already beaten the odds in one way: He's one of just 26 New Mexico natives to make it to the Major Leagues since the dawn of the 20th century. Now, he's trying to harness his prodigious power and patience to help him find a way to make an even bigger impact in the Major Leagues.

"At the end of the day, I feel if I'm healthy I'm going to do well," he said. "As long as I feel good, which I have so far, I always feel like I'm going to do something good. Regardless of what my numbers say, as long as I'm healthy, all I can really do is go out on the field and put everything I have out there."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }