PEORIA, Ariz. -- Jorge Cantu came with side-street numbers to San Diego, where he looms as a main-street run producer. Pitching-dependent and offensively-challenged, even when Adrian Gonzalez's big bat was in their lineup, the Padres approach a new season as relative twigs in a Major League forest of redwoods. Their biggest returning home run hitter is Will Venable, who had 13. Their top incumbent RBI man is Chase Headley, who had 58.
Plugging into this picture is Cantu, who even in a decidedly down season combined for 11 homers and 56 RBIs in Florida and Texas. This makes him an important piece in the reconfiguring of a team that spent 131 days in first place, before falling two games short of the 2010 National League West title. "All I want to do is contribute any way I can," said Cantu, with typical enthusiasm. "I want to make this the best year of my career. New start, great opportunity. I want to make the best of it, no matter what my role is." In Hollywood, Cantu would be called a character actor. In the Padres' Spring Training clubhouse, he is already being called invaluable. The Texas-born, Mexican-raised 29-year-old has extensive experience at all four infield positions -- but the Padres also have others pencilled in to start at each of them. So instead of being perhaps the new Adrian Gonzalez -- a close personal friend, incidentally -- he is more likely to become the new Jerry Hairston Jr. Last season, Hairston also didn't have a regular position, but logged 119 games and 476 plate appearances helping out at five different positions. "I might take that role," Cantu conceded. "They've got [Brad] Hawpe ahead of me at first, Headley at third. That's the way it goes, and you have to respect that. I've talked to Buddy [manager Bud Black] about the opportunity for at-bats, so I'll be there one way or another. It's all about performance. "The more positions you know," Cantu added, defining what makes him such a unique young player, "the more valuable you are as a player. And I take pride in that." Accepting, and adapting to, a utility role can be difficult, especially for someone who just turned 29 a couple of weeks ago. Cantu does not appear to have that problem. He has been both -- anchored at one position and shuttled through several positions -- and produced big in both cases. It is true that 2010 was a major letdown for him, as he spun through four positions for two teams. But it is also true that in two of the three seasons in which he made 100-plus appearances at a single position (129 at third in 2008 and 111 at first in 2009), Cantu put up 45 homers and 195 RBIs. However, it is also a fact that in his breakout season of 2005, Cantu drilled 28 homers and drove in 117 despite a split of third, second and DH duties for Tampa Bay. "Some athletes who've done one thing their whole lives are troubled if you ask them to move around," Black said. "Others embrace the newness of it. It just depends on the individual. Some love it, don't let it affect them." Cantu clearly belongs in the latter category. In his seven-year career, he has started 337 games at third, 261 at first and 219 at second. He has been in six Opening Day lineups for two different teams at all three of those positions. But his best, most consistent position, as the crack goes, has always been the batter's box. In the only three seasons in which he has received 500-plus at-bats, Cantu has averaged 24 home runs and 104 RBIs. He was on pace for those numbers with the Marlins last July 29 when the Rangers acquired him, fulfilling what seemingly was a longtime goal. At least, that is what Cantu had heard. His experiences in Arlington delivered a different message: he made only 26 starts the final two months of the season. "So I basically got shut down after the trade," he said. "But I always had consistency throughout my career. The kind of season I can have ... 20-plus home runs, 90-plus, maybe 100 RBIs ... you never know what can happen if I'm given the opportunity. "I might have a great season, like I did with the Marlins and Tampa Bay. I'm a run-producer, just like [Gonzalez] is. We've talked about it. When I became a free agent, he said, 'This has to be your favorite' and I said, 'Yeah, it was my favorite place to play on the road.' Now I'm here; it was a no-brainer pretty much. "Adrian wished me well, and I congratulated him on his contract." The one Gonzalez and the Red Sox are still "negotiating," or the one they are waiting for April to announce, for tax purposes? If that was a slip by Cantu, it might be one of his rare errors this year. Few grounders will get past him, and even fewer fastballs.