PEORIA, Ariz. -- Among Bud Black's responsibilities as the Padres' new field commander will be sorting through a battalion of middle-relief candidates seeking three or four openings in the bullpen in front of Cla Meredith, Scott Linebrink and Trevor Hoffman. Having been through pretty much everything a pitcher can confront over the course of his career, Black is ideally suited to preside over the competition. "It tells me we think we have depth in that role," Black said as the players were submitting to physical exams and Major League Baseball drug testing Friday in anticipation of Saturday's first official workout.
"Competition brings out the best in most players," Black said, "and we have a number of guys who have Major League time who are competing for a few spots in the 'pen -- and that's a good thing." Returnees Scott Cassidy and Doug Brocail head the list of middle relievers, both having made solid contributions to the Padres' run to the 2006 National League West championship. Others in the crowded hunt include right-handers Mike Adams, Heath Bell, Andrew Brown, Kevin Cameron, Leo Rosales and Scott Strickland along with lefties Frank Brooks, Justin Hampson, Ryan Ketchner, Royce Ring and Sean Thompson. Mike Thompson and Tim Stauffer, like Sean Thompson, are starters who could be shifted to middle relief. Numbers can deceive: Black will attach more importance to what he sees in his pitchers than in what the Cactus League box scores show. The skipper is aware of how winds, hard infields and small ballparks in Arizona can severely alter the numbers. "A lot of times, you've got to look through the statistics -- both ways," Black said. "There are guys who have good statistical springs, but a guy can load the bases and get an out with a line drive at somebody. The other way, a guy can give up a wind-blown homer, a ball gets through a hard infield ... you've got to watch the quality of each pitch." Black will closely monitor his pitchers as they begin to throw on the side starting Saturday, looking for technical qualities alongside pitching coach Darren Balsley. "When we had our staff meeting [Thursday], we went over the players," Black said. "We'll be watching their side work for the action on their pitches, if the arm action stays the same, how a guy repeats his delivery. You observe all these things -- how they field ground balls, their athleticism."
"I'm taking baby steps with the horse farm to see how it goes. I've got a couple people looking for horses for me, quarters for racing and paint horses for Western riding. I'm a big animal guy. Always have been." Back in the saddle: Shawn Estes, who had Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery last June after opening the 2006 season as the club's No. 2 starter behind Jake Peavy, bopped into camp with the familiar smile on his face. "Yeah, it's still there," he said, pointing to the left arm that has produced 99 Major League victories. Estes said he has begun throwing soft toss at 90 feet and will not push it, knowing it takes at least a calendar year for a pitcher to make it back from the complex surgery. "We'll see how it goes," he said, "but June or July sounds about right."
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Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.