Kouzmanoff takes pride in defense, too

Kouzmanoff takes pride in defense, too

PEORIA -- If Kevin Kouzmanoff can make the kind of splash in the Padres lineup he made last September in his Major League debut, his new organization will have every reason to be thrilled.

The 25-year-old Indians third baseman made his first trip to the plate with two out and three on in the first inning. The first pitch he saw was a fastball up in the zone, and Kouzmanoff sent it over the fence, making him the first player in the history of Major League baseball to hit a grand slam on his first big-league pitch.

Two months later, Kouzmanoff came to the Padres, along with pitcher Andrew Brown, in a trade for second baseman Josh Barfield, giving San Diego its best shot for stability at third base since Ken Caminiti left the Padres 10 years ago.

"All of our reports said this guy could really hit," said general manager Kevin Towers. "Our scouts felt he could hold his own up here from a defensive standpoint, but they just felt that the bat was so good. You're going to get so much more on offense from the guy, you could live with maybe some subpar defense at times. Although, since he's been here he's played really good defense."

With a .332 average over four Minor League seasons, it doesn't say much to observe that Kouzmanoff's glove may not be as strong as his bat. For Kouzmanoff, however, scouting reports like "subpar" or "good enough" defense were far from good enough to meet his own standards. As a West Coast kid who moved to Colorado at age 12, he'd grown up admiring Edgar Martinez at the plate and six-time Gold Glover Eric Chavez at the hot corner.

"I take pride in both defense and offense," Kouzmanoff said. "I field just as many ground balls as I swing at baseballs. It's important to have both aspects. As a corner guy, you've got to be able to hit.

"I've been working with [third-base coach] Glenn Hoffman. He's been giving me some helpful hints over there. He told me, 'Keep your feet moving.' He got me in a better ready position. I was a little out of whack I guess, but now I'm starting to feel more and more comfortable over there."

Midway through Spring Training, new Padres manager Bud Black agrees with Towers that Kouzmanoff's defense has shown up much better than advertised.

"I'd heard from a number of guys in the Cleveland organization that he might not look textbook as far as mechanics, fielding the ball, but the end result is the batter's out," Black noted. "I've been impressed by his willingness to work and listen and try to apply the things that Glenn and the other instructors have tried to bring him. From what I've seen, I'm not worried at all."

Hard work and dedication to defense aside, there's no question that Kouzmanoff is making his mark with the bat. A solid contact hitter with power to all fields, he has impressed Black both from the dugout and even more from his perspective throwing batting practice.

"The ball comes off his bat hot," Black said. "He's intense. When the game starts in the dugout, there's a nice look in his eye. I like that. There's a look in his eye that he's into it.

"He's not going to give away at-bats. It's going to be tough on the opposing pitcher, every at-bat."

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Black has been reluctant to announce final roster decisions at this point in spring, let alone his projected starters, but it's hard to deny Kouzmanoff's hold on the job as March moves toward the home stretch.

"He's got a legitimate chance to be our Opening Day third baseman," Black said by way of understatement. "I think he's earned the right, through his performance in the Minor Leagues, to be given an opportunity to be a Major League third baseman, and that is panning out so far this spring."

But even with those around him ready to celebrate on his behalf, Kouzmanoff is reluctant to count his corks before they pop.

"In baseball, nothing's really given to you," Kouzmanoff said. "You have to earn it. So I took that approach in the offseason and coming in to Spring Training that I'm competing for a job just like a lot of these guys are. Going into Spring Training with that mind-set, that mentality, pushes me and makes me work even harder."

With a father who once played pro football for the Chicago Bears, Kouzmanoff knew something about the real world benefits of a good work ethic, but he was challenged again when he moved from Southern California to Evergreen, Colo.

"Colorado's not really a state where you can get outside and improve," Kouzmanoff said, acknowledging the fact that until recently the state had not produced many big-league players. "I just thought the only one stopping myself is me. There's all kinds of stuff you can do indoors. It's not game-like when you're indoors and practicing. But I've always wanted to play baseball. I had my mind set on it."

One day soon he'll get the official word that his presence is requested on the field when the national anthem is played on Opening Day. But don't expect his approach to the game to change once he finally wins the reward for his efforts.

"Even if they were to come out and say, 'hey, the job is yours,' I think for some it might cause you to sit back on your heels a little bit, like 'it's already locked down, I got it,'" Kouzmanoff said. "But while you're on top, I think it's good to work even harder to stay on top."

And as Kouzmanhoff learned when he slammed the first pitch of his big-league career for an historic four-run homer, the view from the top can be delightfully addicting.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.