Yasmani Grandal poised to prove himself

PEORIA, Ariz. — Yasmani Grandal practically skipped into the Arizona sunshine on Friday, the first Padres player out the door and on the field for the first workout of spring training.

Not a surprise.

In the clubhouse earlier that morning, Grandal was on edge.

After brief salutations, I told him I’ve heard he’s been saying he’s good to go.

“I’m showing I’m good,” he said quickly, right on the border of defensive and confrontational.

And so it went for another minute, Grandal jumping on every question the way the Padres hope he’ll turn on pitches and swat them to every corner.

It was highly enjoyable, more lively than combative.

It seems there may be something new about the brash Cuban -- a maturity forged by trial, an eagerness stoked by obstacles.

It’s like there is an energy field around him, a pent-up energy field.

“Where he is in his career, what has transpired, he’s in a different spot for a number of reasons,” Padres Manager Bud Black said. “… His motivation and desire to get back on the field as a healthy player and to prove (himself) -- this guy (has been) a major-league player-in-waiting for a long time. His motivation and sense of commitment is as strong as I’ve seen it.”

Grandal is barely 25 years old, and the range of possible career arcs spans a practically limitless horizon for a guy who plays catcher and hits a bit.
But this is a crucial year for the former first-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds who was acquired by the Padres in a December 2011 trade, flourished for half a rookie season in 2012, was suspended the first 50 games of 2013 for testing positive for a banned substance, then tore his ACL in the third inning of his 28th game.

Or put another way, by Grandal: “Up, go down, up again, go down … The past year-and-a-half has been a roller coaster.”

That’s called a quick summation of an abbreviated beginning.

It’s time for a sustained, unquestioned breakout.

“It’s about proving to myself I can come back and play again with everything that has happened,” he explained.

Therein is just one small morsel for believing Grandal’s apparent maturation is legitimate.

Talking in May, just down Interstate 10 in Tucson as he played out his minor-league stint prior to joining the Padres following his suspension, Grandal spoke only of the need to prove things to others. As he still does, he wore his confidence right on his chest, just down from the chip on his shoulder. Questions about the need to maybe also show himself he could be the same player without artificial help were met then with smug assurances that he knew how good he was.
He still does. Hopefully, that never leaves. But his confidence is now infused with the kind of sensibleness that experience ripens, as he readily acknowledged a player is always fueled by inward doubts.

“Compared to 2012 and 2013,” Grandal said in response to a question about there being a difference in him, laughing as he did so as a way of expressing he believes there is no quantifying the transformation.

“Getting injured,” he said, “taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about myself, a lot about how mentally tough I am to get through things, work through things. It made me grow.”

And, oh, he still knows this: “A lot of people look at the stats of 2013 of just 28 games and they kind of see it as, ‘Oh, he didn’t do good because of this (not using a banned substance).”

His defense is that he didn’t hit all last offseason and was essentially just getting started when Anthony Rendon slid into his leg on July 6. His assertion is that “if I had played another 80 games or another 60 games” he could have gotten back near the level he’d left off in ’12, when he hit .297 with eight home runs and 36 RBI in 192 at-bats.

Well, here he is in spring training, doing things a hand injury didn’t allow last spring. The belief is that he will start the season, though he is on something of a scaled-back regimen to guard against setback.

He has a unique opportunity.

Of the 67 professional players suspended since Major League Baseball instituted its drug policy in 2004, few have come back to perform at same the level as (or better than) they did before being caught. The majority were veterans nearer the end of their career than the beginning.

Grandal is young, not even arbitration eligible until 2016, with a chance to be a key part of a franchise’s anticipated renaissance.

He’s eager to do it.

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