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Ryan Klesko broke into the majors as a 21-year-old rookie with the 1992 Atlanta Braves. He’s since evolved from a platoon player to one of the National League’s most feared hitters, now plying his trade in San Diego. Klesko recently chatted with BP at spring training in Arizona, discussing the loss of Phil Nevin, the challenge of adjusting to a new position, and his path to becoming a full-time player and All-Star.

Baseball Prospectus: What’s the feeling
in the clubhouse after Nevin’s injury?

Ryan Klesko: It’s disbelief, but we’ve got to worry about
keeping ourselves healthy and getting (Nevin and
Hoffman) back. Obviously, we may not see either of
them this year, but in the new stadium we’re going to
need them. We’re going to have to bear down and
concentrate on this season. We’ve got a lot of young
talent pitching-wise, and we’re going to have a lot of
guys in the lineup who are going to have to pull their
weight this year. We’ve got a lot of good young
hitters who have the potential of hitting .300. We
may not have the power that we’d like to have, but
everyone in the lineup can hit for average, and then
you’ve got (Brian Buchanan) and Xavier Nady splitting
time in left field, and Bubba Trammell‘s been swinging
the bat well, so everyone’s going to have to pull
through and stay healthy this year, that’s the main
thing. Some guys are going to get some chances and
some looks to get at-bats, so we just need to play
solid in every aspect, offense, defense, and pitching.

BP: You’ve been in the middle of a lot of good lineups
during the course of your career. Many people have
different ideas about the concept of “protection” in a
lineup. What is your opinion on this subject?

RK: You’ve got to have someone hitting behind you
that’s a decent bat. When Phil went down last year
(with a broken arm), it got to the point there for a
few weeks where I wasn’t being pitched to at all. I
was drawing my walks, and I’m the type of guy who
likes to get on base too–that’s something I’ve
worked really hard on for the last few years. In
September of last season, when Phil had just come back
and was still not healthy, I wasn’t getting much to
hit. We were playing the Giants and the Dodgers,
teams that were still in the race, and two or three of
the guys came up to me and said: “Hey, we’re not going
to let you beat us. We’re going to pitch, but we’re
either going to hit the corners or walk you.” I’m not
greedy, I’m going up there to get on base, draw my
walk and have someone hit a double behind me, but
you’ve got to have someone doing well behind you.

BP: On a more positive note, this week the Padres
signed Brian Lawrence to a multi-year deal, after
giving extensions last year to yourself, Mark Kotsay,
and Phil Nevin. Is it exciting for everyone in the
clubhouse to see that ownership, through management,
is demonstrating that when a player is identified as
being a key to the next winning team in San Diego,
they are rewarded with contract security?

RK: Yeah, KT does a good job with that. If you come
out here and play well, and they like what they see,
you’re probably going to get locked up. The
organization locked up Kevin Jarvis before he got
hurt, and they are taking chances (with these deals)
on injuries. If you’re part of the winning
atmosphere, you play hard, and Boch (Bruce Bochy)
likes what he sees, a lot of times they will sign you
for a couple of years. Some of these guys are young,
and they’re not making in the 8- and 10-million dollar
range, so it’s good to lock these kids up early and
give them security. It helps them to relax, and
that’s a good deal. Hopefully, they’ll go out and get
somebody now, because with losing Phil and Hoffy,
we’re going to have to add some help in the bullpen
and another right-handed power hitter.

BP: Let me take you back now to the start of your
career with the Atlanta Braves. You watched a lot of
good prospects come down the pipeline, along with
yourself, on the way to Fulton County Stadium. What
did that organization do to create and develop so many
quality prospects?

RK: Well, their scouting directors did a great job,
and the organization did a great job with the kids in
the minor leagues. You had Willie Stargell and Hank
Aaron walking around, and their presence alone was a
big help. You had David Justice and Ron Gant come up
through the system, Steve Avery–just tremendous
talent. When Atlanta was doing poorly (in the ’80s),
they were getting a lot of high first-round draft
picks, and they made really good decisions on drafting
kids. We also had great coaches in the minor leagues.

BP: When you came up to Atlanta, Bobby Cox platooned
you exclusively. How do you think that affected your
development as a hitter?

RK: It was pretty tough there for a while. The one
year I did get 500 at-bats, I led the team with 34
homeruns, so I don’t know what they were thinking over
there. I think, being that I was young and they had a
lot of guys over there needing at-bats, I
was kind of the scapegoat in order to get the fourth and
fifth outfielders some ABs. Early on, I had never
played outfield before, so I would play six or seven innings
and then they would take me out for a defensive
replacement. I’d get my 400 at-bats a year, but I
wasn’t getting 500 or 600 plate appearances like I
would’ve liked. That was a difference of opinion and
a conflict there. Obviously, I wanted to play every
day, but I was going out and hitting .280, .300,
hitting my 20 or 25 homeruns with a lesser role. What
can you do? You can only complain so much, and it
gets to the point where it gets old. I had a lot of
teams come up to me and say, “Hey, we’d love to have
you play every day”, but I had to wait it out. Here
it is, the last three years where I’ve played every
day, and it’s been great! I just try to work hard and
work on hitting lefties and getting better every day.

BP: As you just mentioned, you split time in Atlanta
between first base and the outfield, and there was a
switch once again last year in San Diego. Do you feel
switching positions affects you in any way at the
plate?

RK: Not for me, mentally, because I’m used to it. You
know, if something happens, there’s a double switch
and Boch has a first baseman he wants to get in the
game, I’ll grab my outfielder’s glove.
Mentally, this game’s tough, but for a position
change, if you’re a guy that’s used to it, I don’t
mind. If it takes me going out there and playing a
couple of innings in the outfield in order to get one
of these kids in there and get a bat in there or a
pinch-hitter, that’s fine with me because I’m all about
winning. I’m not a selfish guy, I’ve learned that.
I’ve tried to get better as I get older and I want to
win. I’m not worried about my numbers, whether I’m hitting .300
or how many homeruns I hit, I just want to win. They
can say that I’ve got great numbers or I was team MVP
last year…who cares? We finished in last place last
year. I want to win.

BP: In the course of the 1990s, the game has changed.
There has been a great influx of power,
conditioning and training methods have changed, and
more attention is paid to nutrition as well. How have
your training methods changed since you were younger?

RK: Oh, it’s 10 times (better). Guys work out harder
in the off-season, the supplements are out there, and
people take care of their bodies more. They have a
hard workout regimen. I’ve had a trainer in the
off-season for the past four years, and I’m in better
shape than ever. I’m quicker than I used to be.
There’s a lot more drills, devices, and weight
equipment to help develop a baseball player. If you
look at the average weights of ballplayers 10 years
ago and today, they’re bigger, stronger, and faster now,
just like in the NFL. Injuries have risen a little
bit, but that’s what happens when you get bigger,
stronger guys. That’s why the power numbers have gone
up. I don’t care what they say about a juiced ball or
whatever, when you look around, the average shortstop
size is 20 or 30 pounds heavier than it used to be.
Second baseman are now hitting for power. You’ve got
guys who work out and put in the extra effort, and
they go out and hit the ball a lot harder.

BP: You mentioned supplements, which has been a
hot-button topic recently in baseball. Do you feel
that overall, from the training staff on down, that
you are well educated about the potential risks and
rewards?

RK: Oh, there’s thousands of supplements out there.
So many different things you can take, and some of
that stuff isn’t tested as well as it should be. But
hey, if you drink too much caffeine it can raise your
heart rate. You can overdose on Advil. You’d like to see more testing
of some of these supplements. A lot of these things
are natural, and players are looking for stuff to give
them that edge. It’s one of those things where I’d
like to see them do more testing for a lot of that
stuff that’s out on the market, particularly for some
young kids.

BP: I know you like
to surf a lot. Do you feel that’s helped you in any
way athletically or with your flexibility?

RK: Well, let’s put it this way: I’ve been on the DL
one time in 10 years. It’s just like swimming. I
haven’t really had any shoulder injuries, or a whole
lot of injuries at all. Surfing, like swimming, it’s
conditioning and is a big part of my training. It
keeps my shoulders and my back strong, and helps my
flexibility too. Getting in the water is good, and
it’s helped me out a lot, that’s for sure.

Craig Elsten works for KOGO Radio in San Diego as the pregame/postgame co-host for the Padres. He has also served as the Cactus League play-by-play voice of MLB Radio, and regularly beats Joe Sheehan in Strat-O-Matic baseball. You can reach him at celsten@clearchannel.com.