Athlete's Advantage

Matt Antonelli applies finishing touches with Portland

PORTLAND, Ore.—Ask anyone in the Padres organization about 2006 first-round pick Matt Antonelli and you are bound to hear about his athleticism.

His hitting coach will rave about how it translates to a strong, compact swing that, when combined with his excellent eye, has the potential to make him the rare leadoff hitter with pop.

His manager will tell you how it has eased his transition from playing third base to second base and gives him the potential to play almost anywhere on the diamond.

Grady Fuson, the Padres' vice president of scouting and player development, will explain how it allayed any concerns the organization had about moving him from short-season ball to Triple-A in less than two years.

So you know teammate and roommate Wade LeBlanc must be joking when he says, that as far as he can tell, baseball may be Antonelli's worst sport. But it should also make you wonder.

After all, Antonelli was the Massachusetts state player of the year in hockey and football as a high school senior—and the runner-up in baseball.

Fuson said he and the Padres scouting staff never doubted Antonelli's future was on the diamond.

"We were all in agreement that by the time he's big league ready this guy has the ability to play numerous places on the baseball field because of his athleticism and his instincts," Fuson said. "He's got a chance to be a complete guy."

Antonelli, 23, is off to a slow start offensively this season with Portland, but that didn't seem to matter to his manager Randy Ready.

"His style of play dictates that he's going to get an opportunity to play every day at the major league level," Ready said. "He's made a lot of progress and he's getting himself close to being the second baseman in San Diego."

Up For Anything

Much of Antonelli's progress has come defensively in preparing to helm second base. After his first full season at second, split between high Class A and Double-A in 2007, Antonelli said he is beginning to feel at home up the middle.

"At first I was thinking a lot instead of just reacting. I'd have to sit there and be like, 'Okay, if a ball goes here, where am I supposed to go?' " he said. "This year I feel like I've played second for longer than just a season. I feel pretty comfortable over there, and I don't have to think anymore. I can just react."

Antonelli credited Ready, a 13-year major league veteran who played all around the infield, with helping teach him the new position.

Ready was confident that Antonelli will succeed at his new spot, but said he still needs to polish his work around second, specifically focusing on his awareness of everything going on around him and his responsibilities.

"He's flexible enough to make that change, both physically and mentally," Ready said. With a laugh, he added, "Those guys are hard to find, and sometimes that can turn into an occupational hazard—speaking from experience."

In the offseason, the Padres tinkered with the idea of moving Antonelli to center field, but second base is the plan for now. He could also return to the hot corner, if an emergency arose, because he was a plus defender there in college.

"I don't really worry about positions," he said. "No matter where you play, you get to get up in the batter's box and hit, and for me that's what I really enjoy doing. That's the fun part."

Antonelli is able to have so much fun at the plate thanks to his disciplined approach.

He set a school record for walks during his career at Wake Forest, and has amassed an on-base percentage north of .400 in his three pro seasons.

Always Room For Improvement

While no one expected Antonelli to hit 30-plus home runs coming out of college, he raised some eyebrows by going homerless in 60 games in his debut with short-season Eugene in 2006.

Portland hitting coach Max Venable scoffed at those who questioned Antonelli's power.

"He hit 21 home runs last year, so I don't think there is a lack of power there," he said laughing. "You look at Antonelli, man he's a strong kid; he's got good bat speed, and I think with good bat speed you're going to hit for some power."

Fuson said it's probably too soon to predict his future but said he was optimistic Antonelli could develop into a .280-.300 hitter with 30 doubles, 15-20 home runs, 20-25 stolen bases and a .350-.370 on-base percentage.

Antonelli's first 18 games as the Beavers' leadoff man have shown that he still has some work to do before those numbers become a reality. He was batting .216/.348/.419 with two home runs, five doubles and two steals. On the positive side, he had drawn 13 walks and struck out 14 times in 74 at-bats.

"If he wasn't getting any walks, then I'd say we have some issues," Venable said. "If you analyze his swing, he has a very short, compact swing, so there's not a whole lot he can do. It's just a matter of going up to the plate having good confidence. I don't think he lacks that, he's a tough kid."

Antonelli's omnipresent smile and his palpable enthusiasm are good indicators that he has enjoyed riding the fast track to the cusp of the majors. But he admitted it has taken its toll in some areas.

After finishing his first full season and playing in the Arizona Fall League last year, Antonelli found he had lost 25 pounds, simply from not being used to the daily rigors of being a professional.

He's put the muscle and weight back on and looks to sustain both while playing his first Triple-A season. He's aware of the attention his strong performance last year brought and knows he needs to sustain his high level.

"It was only one year," he said. "If I did it 10 years in a row, I guess I'd look at it and say, 'Of yeah, that's pretty good.' But I'm just trying to play well this year and improve on everything I did last year."

If he does that, there's a good chance a roster spot will be waiting for him in San Diego next spring.

Ian Ruder is a freelance writer based in Portland.