Cameron Maybin starting to see the sun
Fear of failing or another demotion to the minors behind the Padres' outfielder
Trevor Hoffman jogged out of the San Diego bullpen for years to the accompaniment of AC/DC's "Hells Bells," so maybe Padres center fielder Cameron Maybin will warrant a theme song of his own in time. Timbuk3's single, "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)," springs to mind as a good choice, for both symbolic and practical reasons.
Maybin, 24, keeps a case in his locker stall with a half-dozen sunglasses of all shapes, styles and UV ratings. While he's off lifting weights or taking extra swings in the cage, Padres pitcher Mat Latos habitually digs through his personal stash and tries different pairs on for size.
Latos claims it's permissible because of his unique personal bond with Maybin as a teammate and friend.
"Cam is an awesome dude," Latos said. "He's my brother, but we were separated at birth."
If the other Padres say complimentary things about Maybin, it's more a function of his skills than his sunglasses collection. When the Detroit Tigers picked Maybin with the 10th overall choice in the 2005 draft, scouts and talent evaluators saw star potential because of his speed, strong throwing arm and athletic ability. But Maybin has been slower to develop than Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce, the high school outfielders taken directly behind him in the 11th and 12th spots.
It's challenging enough to deal with sliders on the outside corner and the expectations that a $2.65 million signing bonus brings, but Maybin has lugged around an additional burden in recent years: In December 2007, the Tigers packed Maybin and pitcher Andrew Miller off to Florida in a deal for a certain slugging All-Star first baseman. The two players have since become known as "the kids who were traded for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis."
While Miller keeps plugging away with mixed results for the Red Sox, Maybin is Exhibit A of the wonders that result from talent colliding with opportunity. After more ups and downs than your average debt-ceiling negotiations, he's found a home as San Diego's resident leadoff hitter, fly chaser and catalyst.
Maybin, acquired by the Padres from Florida in November in a trade for relievers Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica, got the 2011 season off to a rousing start with a home run and a diving catch in St. Louis on Opening Day. Given the green light to steal by Padres manager Bud Black, he's succeeded on 26 of 28 attempts. And his monthly batting averages -- .247 in April, .263 in May, .288 in June and .315 in July -- are testament to his personal growth.
From Maybin's vantage point, his improvement this year is rooted largely in self-confidence. He's found it a lot easier to move forward now that he's not so busy looking over his shoulder.
"This is the first time in two or three seasons where I've felt comfortable," Maybin said. "I'm not worried about the consequences of going out there and trying to get a hit every night. Even if I have a bad week or a bad month, I feel like these guys are still with me.
"In past situations, I've always felt like I had to be perfect or I might get sent down a month or two into the season. Now I'm able to relax and make the adjustments I need to make. I'm just believing in myself a little more."
For every Evan Longoria or Buster Posey who hits the ground running, there's a corresponding Jose Bautista, Jayson Werth or Nelson Cruz who takes a while to find his niche. Colby Rasmus, a late first-round pick in 2005, frustrated the Cardinals enough that they pulled the cord and traded him to Toronto at the deadline. Alex Gordon, the No. 2 pick that same year, came perilously close to being declared a bust before breaking through with Kansas City this season. Gordon isn't the "next George Brett," as some proclaimed him early in his career, but he looks like a guy who plans to stick around a while.
In San Diego, Maybin is part of a new wave of talent. Third baseman Chase Headley has what it takes to be a consistent .300 hitter, even if Petco Park puts a crimp in his power numbers. General manager Jed Hoyer just picked up two promising arms from Texas for reliever Mike Adams. And Anthony Rizzo, Reymond Fuentes and Casey Kelly, the prospects acquired from Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, are regarded as linchpins to the Padres' future.
The teammates and coaches who work with Maybin each day consider him a franchise building block for both his talent and attributes that can't be measured on a 20-to-80 scouting scale. They invariably describe him as a hard worker and a respectful kid who embodies the values that teams love to see in young players.
Padres outfielder Will Venable saw all those qualities on display when he competed against Maybin in the Class A Midwest League in 2006. Venable was 23 years old and not far removed from his Princeton baseball days when he first met Maybin, who was 19 and a year removed from T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville, N.C.
"You see some of these high picks, and they know they're high picks," Venable said. "They have a little bit of money and they think they don't have to do things like other guys do. But that was never the case with him. He's always been a guy who runs hard, and does the right things and says the right things and means them, because that's the type of person he is."
Although Maybin is not the type to lose sight of the big picture, the Padres have surrounded him with professional influences, just in case. Shortstop Jason Bartlett and second baseman Orlando Hudson, the irrepressible "O-Dog," have been particularly helpful in Maybin's development, with an encouraging word in the dugout here or some big-picture advice over lunch or dinner there.
Hudson sees many of the same personal and baseball characteristics in Maybin that he so admired in Justin Upton, his former Arizona teammate. Upton has taken a major step forward this season after the Diamondbacks bandied around his name in trade talks last winter.
"I had Justin when he was a young buck," Hudson said. "I raised him. I said, 'This kid is going to be a 15-time All-Star.' Upton has a little more power than Maybin, and he's a little thicker, but there are a lot of similarities between the two. They're the same height. They've both got great speed, good arm strength and they cover ground. They're just pure talents."
A look inside the numbers suggests that Maybin still has a ways to go as a hitter. He strikes out too often and needs to do a better job of being selective and working counts if he plans to remain in the leadoff spot. According to Inside Edge, Maybin is hitting .293 against fastballs, .193 off sliders, .182 versus curves and .171 versus changeups this season. Until he proves he's equipped to handle the soft stuff, pitchers are going to keep throwing it.
He's always been a guy who runs hard, and does the right things and says the right things and means them, because that's the type of person he is." -- Teammate Will Venable, on Cameron Maybin
Defensively, Maybin arrived with a reputation as a player whose biggest strength was the ability to outrun his mistakes. But with time and effort, he's getting better jumps and taking more efficient routes to the ball.
"There's always room for improvement, obviously," said Dave Roberts, San Diego's first base and outfield coach. "But he's been pretty sound out there. He'll win a Gold Glove one day. I'm certain of that."
Maybin enjoyed some personal vindication in July when he returned to Florida and went 9-for-15 with five steals to lead the Padres to a three-game sweep of his former team. Several Marlins approached Roberts and told him that Maybin looks like a "completely different player" from his Florida days. The kid believes in himself now, and slowly but surely his numbers are starting to reflect that.
Maybin doesn't profess to be a cautionary tale for organizations who might be tempted to form judgments on prospects too quickly. But it'll be interesting to see how long it takes the Cardinals to regret trading Rasmus to Toronto because of questions about his makeup and coachability.
"There are a lot of good players who don't tear it up the first day up," Maybin said. "It takes time. A lot of people say, 'If you can play in Double-A or Triple-A, then you can play in the big leagues.' I disagree. Things happen a lot faster up here. It's a totally different game."
Maybin hasn't mastered the game, by a long shot, but he's making progress every day. No matter which pair of shades he plucks from that case, he's bound to see the sun shining through.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
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