Black, Hoyer offer insight at luncheon

Black, Hoyer offer insight at luncheon

SAN DIEGO -- Across America, with the possible exception of New Orleans, football has ceded the sports calendar to baseball.

That's certainly true here in San Diego.

Spring Training is little more than a week away, but we don't even have to wait until then to enjoy America's pastime.

For one, there's the Padres FanFest on Saturday at PETCO Park. The event gives fans the chance to throw pitches in the bullpen, catch fly balls in the outfield, gather autographs from their favorite players past and present, or find a bargain in the Padres Foundation Garage Sale.

And Wednesday brought a special treat for fans as Padres general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Bud Black spoke at the San Diego Hall of Champions. It's an annual tradition for the Hall of Champions to invite the Padres out in February to provide a preview of Spring Training and the coming season, part of the Hall's Sports at Lunch Series.

Black and Hoyer provided plenty of tidbits for an audience that was just as hungry for baseball info as it was for the macaroni salad and chicken wraps.

Perhaps the most important nugget of news, from a pure baseball perspective, was that Black did not list five locked-in starters for the pitching rotation. Chris Young, Jon Garland, Kevin Correia and Clayton Richard are the top four (though not necessarily in that order). But Black did not include Mat Latos, who was electric at times as a rookie in 2009, as a shoo-in.

Black listed Latos, Sean Gallagher, Tim Stauffer, Wade LeBlanc and Cesar Ramos as candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Keep in mind, of course, that it is part of a manager's job to keep players motivated during Spring Training. And the best way to do that is to crack the door open for big league jobs.

Still, it was interesting. Also interesting is that quintet of candidates for the final spot all are good, young pitchers with a lot of upside and at least a taste of the big leagues. Think back to last spring, when the Padres were scrambling to fill three spots in the rotation. Now, there's a surplus of quality candidates.

"This year, more than any year in the past, there's more depth," Black said. "The guys who don't make our rotation will either go to the bullpen or go back to [Triple-A] Portland. And these guys are coming off seasons where they've pitched well. And we know more about them.

"There's a reliability factor that we didn't have in the past."

Black dropped some good news about Young, who recently moved from a rehab program to a regular throwing program. The manager said Young, who had shoulder surgery last summer, will be ready for full activity in Spring Training.

Hoyer is eager to see Young, and every Padre, in uniform. Since coming to the Padres as GM last October, he has immersed himself in all things Padres. Nary a scouting report escaped his gaze. He watched video until blurry-eyed.

But there's no substitute for the real thing, Hoyer said.

"I can't wait to get to Peoria, to get out on the field, to watch the players and start that process."

The way the offseason unfolded was no accident. Hoyer made few moves early on as he assessed the strengths and weakness of the club and organization. He brought in quality advisers who shortened his learning curve.

He saw the slow market for talent and pounced after the New Year. Garland, super-utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. and catcher Yorvit Torrealba all came aboard in recent weeks.

Like Hoyer, Black is eager to get to Peoria, though for a slightly different reason. Black is eager to build on the Padres' strong finish in 2009. They went 37-25 down the stretch, the fifth-best record in the Majors over that period.

That coincided with the emergence of young players such as Kyle Blanks, Will Venable, Tony Gwynn, Everth Cabrera, Latos and Luke Gregerson. And it featured more speed and athleticism on display.

"A lot of the turnaround was on the mental side," Black said. "They finally believed they belonged in the Major Leagues. They weren't just trying to survive and avoid getting sent down to Portland. A lot of times, when you feel you belong in the Big Leagues, you're ready to perform.

"Every year is different. You can't just rely on what these guys did last year. But it does lay a foundation that they can play, that they can compete against other clubs."

Black saw the Padres' finish in 2009 as legit. He noted that the Padres were winning series after series against clubs that had winning seasons.

"It was a good group. The pitching staff pitched very well. It was fun to watch," Black said. "I've had more comments this winter from our fans about the last two months and how enjoyable it was to watch them play.

"I know the players left the season with a great taste in their mouths. They're excited about getting to camp next week."