Free Kyle Blanks?

In 2009, at the precocious age of 22, Kyle Blanks stormed into the Show and promptly swatted 10 big flies, and his .372 wOBA — in a limited sample — was third-best on the Padres. In other words, he had arrived, and the Friars happily installed him as their cleanup hitter for the 2010 campaign. But after a slow start, Blanks was felled by Tommy John surgery, and has seemingly been an afterthought since. Is the big man still capable of pulverizing pitches, and if so, does he need to be traded in order to do so?

Pair Blanks’ 2010 struggles with his play last year, and you don’t have a pretty picture. In his last 88 games (and 310 plate appearances) at the Major League level the past two seasons, he has hit .202/.294/.375. Not only is that unsightly, but it also comprises more than 64 percent of his total Major League plate appearances. As a result, his projections heading into this year aren’t overwhelmingly positive. Rotochamp has Blanks pegged for a .329 wOBA, which would put him as the 40th best first baseman out of 63, or tied for 88th out of 175 outfielders. Bill James’ numbers are slightly more optimistic, pegging him for a .339 wOBA, but that’s nowhere near the .372 mark he put up in ’09.

But is that a fair projection? His problems in 2010 were injury related, and his problems last year can be explained by the playing that he was doled out. If you look closely at this 2011 line, you can see a clear demarcation in performance. In August, his first full month back, he started 26 of 28 games, and hit well — .273/.324/.566, with seven homers and a .380 wOBA. But in September, the team brought Anthony Rizzo back up. He needed playing time, as did Jesus Guzman — who was also swinging a hot bat — and Blanks’ PT suffered. As his playing time suffered, so too did his play. He started only 13 of the 25 games for the month, and hit just .213/.296/.234. It was a dismal end to an otherwise productive first season back. Blanks had hit fairly well in Double-A, and then tore up Triple-A before finally getting back to the Majors. In fact, if you take out the final month of the season, Blanks hit .290/.360/.548 across three levels, before imploding in September. Do those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt? Absolutely, some of it came against Double-A pitching. But it paints a starkly different picture than .202/.294/.373 does.

Nevertheless, the Padres are not counting on Blanks heading into the season. The team traded for Carlos Quentin to take over in left, and first base will be manned by Yonder Alonso and Guzman. In right, there is the venerable trio of Will Venable, Chris Denorfia and Mark Kotsay, who turns up so frequently that his nickname should be “Bad Penny.” Throw in Cameron Maybin in center, and that’s five outfielders. Teams don’t usually carry six, so there is a decent chance that Blanks will start the season in the Minors, as the Padres want him to get regular work. At this juncture, it seems the best he could hope for at the Major League level is the shallow half of a platoon with Venable.

Venable may actually hold the key to Blanks’ fate in San Diego. An above-average hitter against right-handed pitching, Venable has been a sink against lefties, and at age 29, there may not be any improvement left to discover in his game. If he comes out of the gate slowly, Blanks could supplant him on a full-time basis, but that might not happen until June at the earliest. The Pads could also be holding Blanks back as insurance for Quentin, who is no stranger to the disabled list and may only be with the team until he becomes an attractive trade chip at the trading deadline. Even if the Padres choose not to deal him, he can become a free agent next winter, so Blanks may have to bide his time until 2013.

As it stands now, Kyle Blanks is a man without a home. The Friars seem set with their five outfield positions. There would be no harm in cutting Kotsay, but rotating Blanks in and out of the starting lineup didn’t work in September — he may need to be in the lineup everyday to be successful. As a result, Blanks may be bound for Tucson, to await either Venable floundering or Quentin hurting himself or being traded. But with teams like the Blue Jays, Indians and Tigers all seemingly in need of one extra bat, Blanks could hold value on the trade market, especially since Carlos Pena has signed with Tampa. Blanks’ poor overall numbers the past two seasons give the Padres the luxury of waiting and seeing if he can turn things around, but one thing is certain — if Blanks is sent to Tucson to start 2012 and hits the way he hit in 2009 and the better part of 2011, the “free Kyle Blanks” campaign will start en masse.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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