Storm loaded up the middle

PEORIA, AZ — Although most of the attention this spring has been deservedly on the number of quality pitchers in the Padres’ system they are also starting to develop fast, athletic players in the field. Nowhere is a better example of this than up the I-15 in Lake Elsinore.

The Storm will have by far and away the best collection of position players in the organization until a few of them get promoted to AA San Antonio later in the summer.

Austin Hedges, 20, is considered one of the best defensive catchers in the minor leagues. The 2011 second round draft — and Hedges by his talent, and signing bonus, should be considered a first round pick — hit much better than expected in Fort Wayne while being all that he was advertised defensively.

As a TinCap he hit .279 with 38 extra-base hits and was the first Midwest League catcher in six years to post an OPS over .700.

“I really enjoyed watching Hedges throw out runners, which happened at an increased rate as the season went along,” said TinCaps’ announcer Mike Couzens at the end of last year.

What tends to separate Hedges from other catchers is the athleticism that he brings to the position. It’s rare to find catchers on any level that move with his fluidity combined with a strong knowledge of the position.

Baseball Prospectus, was even more effusive on what they saw in Hedges last year.

“He has great footwork, understands his role and just has really outstanding make-up which is what you need in a catcher,” said Jason Parks, Baseball Prospectus’ primary writer on prospects.

“I mean we are talking about Yadier Molina level of defensive talent and we have him in our overall Top 20.”

Shortstop Jace Peterson and Second Baseman Cory Spangenberg, two left-handed hitters, will form one of the more athletic double play combinations that the organization has seen in many years.

Spangenberg, 22, the Padres’ first selection in the 2011 draft and tenth overall put up some great numbers during his debut season hitting .316/.419/.418 between Eugene and Fort Wayne to go along with 25 stolen bases in 33 attempts. Last year he got off to a poor start which was compounded by an accidental beaning which cost him over a month of the season.

The good news is that he looks like he has come all the way back based on his performance in the Arizona Fall League where he hit .345 and put on about ten pounds of muscle in the off-season.

Peterson, 23, a former football star at McNeese State and a four-sport star in high school, played his first full year of baseball last season with the TinCaps. At Fort Wayne he finished second in the league in steals and had a .378 on-base percentage, excelling in his role as a lead-off hitter.

The key for Peterson, particularly at such a key position was getting out on the field more which helped to develop his defensive instincts. Also look for more power from him as he begins to recognize what pitches he can drive.

But this won’t come at the expense of what he does best.

“My game is getting on base and playing good defense,” said Peterson at spring training. “[But] no doubt I am a gap to gap guy. That is what really fits into my game plan and style.”

Travis Jankowski, 21, is the newcomer to the group having been selected in the supplemental phase of the 2012 draft. He was able to put together a twenty-five game hitting streak with the TinCaps at the end of the year after leading the Stony Brook Seawolves to their first ever College World Series appearance.

Jankowski, also a left-handed hitter and plus runner like both Peterson and Spangenberg, and may be the best defensive player of the group.

“He is a long-strider,” said Shawn Wooten, who will manage the Storm this season. “He can really cover a lot of ground out in center.”

In spring Jankowski, who also added about ten pounds of muscle, couldn’t wait for the season to begin.

“Yeah if everyone is there in Lake Elsinore that will be a heck of team,” Jankowski said. “Hopefully we will all stay healthy and get that chance.”

The Storm should have some power on the outfield corners with Yeison Ascencio and Kyle Gaedele, both of whom are also very athletic, and third baseman Duanel Jones but the hallmark of this team will be speed and defense by the group of guys up the middle.

When asked what type of team he thought he may have this year, Shawn Wooten, laughing, said, “We plan on running a little.”

John Conniff is a contributor to both MadFriars.com and FoxSportsSan Diego.com