CASEY BLAKE issueda disclaimer to his new Indians teammate Kevin Kouzmanoff last Sept. 2, afterthe 25-year-old Kouzmanoff became the first player to hit the first pitch hesaw in the big leagues for a grand slam. "Hey, Kouz," Blake said to himin the dugout, after the blast off Rangers righthander Edinson Volquez,"it's not that easy up here all the time."
Hitting has neverbeen a problem for Kouzmanoff at any level. In 349 minor league games the thirdbaseman hit .332 with a .395 on-base percentage, and the Padres gave up anevery-day second baseman who hit .280 in the big leagues at age 23, JoshBarfield, on the assumption that Kouzmanoff will continue to pound pitching inthe bigs. General manager Kevin Towers believes that Kouzmanoff has a biggerupside than Barfield does, and "good third basemen are harder to find than[good] second basemen."
Of the tradeKouzmanoff says, "I was shocked. I didn't see it coming. You're with oneteam for a while, and then all of a sudden, it's a weird feeling, like going toa new high school. But there's a great opportunity for me here."
The Padres' faithin veteran Vinny Castilla last season went unrewarded, leaving San Diego withthe second-worst batting average (.230), fewest RBIs (60) and fewest runs (68)out of the third base position among all 30 teams. Despite an odd stroke inwhich he appears to hide his hands behind his back shoulder while loading them,Kouzmanoff could provide a significant upgrade on those numbers. "He's alittle like Chad Tracy," Towers says of the Diamondbacks' talentedfourth-year third baseman. "Maybe not the flashiest guy, but he can flathit."
ROBERT BECK (KOUZMANOFF)