Thursday, August 25, 2011

Don't blink

It takes several years to evaluate a draft class in baseball. Where's the fun in that? We're in the immediacy business here. Besides, thin-slicing has its uses where the Padres and the draft are concerned. If Malcolm Gladwell decides to write a sequel to Blink,  he ought to include a chapter on high-profile draft picks of the Padres from 1995-2004. Snap judgments turned out to be right judgments in the aftermath of Signing Day, often to the Padres' dismay.

Ben Davis, for example, hit weak groundball after weak groundball in his first batting practice as a pro. The Padres had just used the second pick of the 1995 draft on Davis, a high school catcher from Pennsylvania, and had spoken of his smooth defense and thumping bat. After so many dribblers, several big leaguers stopped watching him swing the wood.

The day a freshly drafted Jake Gautreau took batting practice at the Murph, a Padres player shook his head and said the first rounder's swing didn't bode well for pro ball.

Matt Bush's first day with the Padres after being chosen first overall in 2004 foretold the nightmare to come. Bush angered Padres players by staying in the batting cage too long, even after they told him to get out. Later in pregame workouts, his errant throw from shortstop cracked a camerman's lens. After returning to the clubhouse, Bush again ticked off Padres players by dumping his gear in front of two dressing stalls. Topping off his day of bad first impressions, Bush and friends damaged an excutive suite that night at Petco Park.

Quick study of Kevin Nicholson, another first-round pick and shortstop, shocked Padres players. He didn't have the body or the athleticism they associated with that species.

Last week brought more strangeness in the aftermath of a Signing Day, when this blog indulged in thin-slicing while catcher Austin Hedges took his first batting practice. Hedges, whose $3 million signing bonus was the biggest in this Padres draft class, hit for only a few minutes, and what I saw didn't add up. Hedges went about it like the real pros do. Nothing overly strenuous, yet smooth shots up the middle and the other way, the ball sounding like it does when the big leaguers hit it. With a few more pitches left, Hedges was told to "let it go." The righty replied with a launch over the center field wall, then a drive into Petco National Park's second deck above left-center.

It didn't add up because Hedges, who turned 19 last week, was known far more for his defensive prowess at a premium position than his hitting when teams judged him for the draft. This display was that of someone drafted for his bat. Six-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Hedges didn't just look like a big leaguer in uniform. He took batting practice like a big leaguer.

This week, Hedges began his pro career in the Arizona Summer League, six clubs below the major leagues. The Padres used him as a designated hitter the first two games, then put him at catcher today.

Laying into a curveball, Hedges hit it over the 385-foot marker in left-center for a home run.

A baserunner tried to steal second base. Hedges threw him out as the scouts clicked their stopwatches. One scout doubted his own clocking -- 1.84 seconds. Another scout had the throw at 1.83 and a third at 1.85. The major league average is two seconds. 

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