Slimmer Kyle Blanks Aspires To Roam Petco's Pastures

TUCSON—Two years ago, slugging behemoth Kyle Blanks, the Padres' reigning top prospect, embarked on his big league career by hitting 10 home runs in 54 games. The problem was that San Diego already had perennial all-star Adrian Gonzalez ensconced at first base, Blanks' natural position.

Blanks banged down the doors with a big season in Double-A in 2008. Playing in the pitcher-friendly environment of San Antonio, he batted .325/.404/.515 with 20 home runs and 107 RBIs.

With Triple-A Portland the following season, Blanks spent most of his time learning to play left field in deference to Gonzalez. After being called up to San Diego in mid-June he showed surprising agility for a man his size—a listed 6-foot-6, 272 pounds—along with the promise of a big bat that not even Petco Park could hold. He finished the 2009 season on a high note by compiling a 1.028 OPS in the second half.

Blanks received the Opening Day nod as left fielder and cleanup hitter in 2010, but through mid-May he had hit just .157 with strikeouts in 45 percent of his at-bats. That's when he learned that his injured right elbow required Tommy John surgery, a procedure that knocked him out for the rest of the season.

"It was very monotonous, doing a lot of the same things every day," said Blanks reflecting on his rehabilitation drills.

"Every time I reached another milestone—getting to lift weights or throwing at 120 feet—those small milestones allowed me to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

The 24-year-old Blanks is once again healthy this season after being limited in spring training. He batted .282/.353/.475 in a month-long tune-up with San Antonio before being promoted to Tucson in early June.

Roadblock Ahead

In the offseason the Padres traded Gonzalez, who had one year remaining on his contract, to the Red Sox for four players, including 21-year-old first base prospect Anthony Rizzo. So in effect, San Diego replaced Blanks' primary roadblock with a younger one.

Originally drafted by Padres vice president for player development Jason McLeod when he served as Boston's scouting director, Rizzo wasted no time in making a positive impression on the organization. Playing for Tucson, he walloped Pacific Coast League pitchers with 16 home runs in 52 games to go with a .365/.444/.715 batting line. The Padres called up Rizzo on June 9.

However, Blanks may be better suited to roam Petco's spacious outfield pastures now than he was when he first started to play there in 2009.

He signed with San Diego as a draft-and-follow out of Yavapai (Ariz.) JC in 2005, one year after the organization made him a 42nd-round pick. At one point in his career Blanks tipped the scales at around 300 pounds, but now he weighs in at a comparatively svelte 255, the lightest he's been as a professional.

With left fielder Ryan Ludwick's contract expiring at the end of the year, Blanks remains the Padres best internal corner-outfield option going into 2012. The Padres say his weight loss has enhanced his athleticism and range in left field—though Blanks still has played first base about four times more frequently than left field this season.

"He's leaned out, really worked on it," Tucson manager Terry Kennedy said. "I still can't believe how well he moves for a guy that big."

Because of the lengthy recovery time for his elbow surgery, Blanks started throwing in game conditions late in spring training. He started just twice in left field in Double-A, but the Padres intend to rotate him between left field and first base in Tucson with Matt Clark.

Final Analysis

The slimmed-down Blanks had not been any less productive with a bat in his hands. Through 11 games with Tucson he went 17-for-44 (.386) with two homers, seven doubles and seven RBIs.

"I guess a swing is always under construction," Blanks said. "You are maintaining and trying to keep things as simple as possible.

"I feel like I am making strides in that direction."

Scouts who watched Blanks play in a recent series believe he has the defensive ability to be a playable major league left fielder. Although as one scout noted the first thing you look for in a left fielder is his bat.

As to the defensive side of things, Blanks said, "I definitely feel a little quicker off of the draw.

"My feet really don't hurt anymore, and anything that I've done well has a lot to do with the work I put in with (Padres bench and outfield coach) Rick Renteria."

While getting in good shape will help him stay on the field, Blanks believes his defensive success will be more than just sticking to his diet.

"(Renteria) worked with me for over a year on everything from routes to how to throw a ball out there. I'm not the fastest person, so my reads need to be a lot more acute than someone else. I have to do so many little things right to make those plays. I'm still a ways away, but I'm going in the right direction."

Even though it seems like Blanks has been around forever, he won't turn 25 until September. Along with Rizzo, he could form a formidable (and affordable) middle of the order for years to come.

"In our opinion he is an option at both first base and left field," Padres farm director Randy Smith said. "Right now our plan is to play him at both spots."

John Conniff covers the Padres system for 619