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Finally healthy, Decker looks to stick with Padres

Outfielder struggled with foot injuries in 2012, but leads in at-bats this spring

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Just when Padres Minor League outfielder Jaff Decker thought things couldn't get any worse last season, they actually did.

Scuffling along in May with a .185 average for Double-A San Antonio, and nursing an injured left foot, Decker rolled a ball through the infield on a soggy day in Springfield, Mo.

A base hit, that's good, right? Only Decker didn't get very far.

"It had been raining and the ground was slick," Decker said. "I hit the ball up the middle and as I went to step, I heard a pop [in his left foot]. I couldn't get to first and was thrown out by the center fielder."

The truth is, Decker barely made it out of the box. Worse still, the two teammates who helped Decker -- who is listed at 5-foot-10, but is shorter -- off the field? That would be 6-foot-6 pitcher Jeff Ibarra and 6-8 first baseman Nate Freiman.

"I'm like, 'C'mon, couldn't you get anyone shorter?'" Decker said Monday.

Decker, 23, can laugh about the memory now, though 2012 wasn't much fun for him. Decker, who was the 42nd overall pick in the 2008 Draft out of Sunrise Mountain High in Peoria, hit a combined .201 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 56 games.

Decker, who had just been put on the 40-man roster the previous winter, was first slowed by plantar fasciitis early in the season. Then, on May 31 in Springfield, he tore the plantar tendon.

"I've broken bones before, but this was one of the worst pains I've had," Decker said.

This spring, Decker is healthy once again and has played more than just about any other player in Major League camp. Going into Monday's game against the Rangers in Surprise, Decker led the Padres in at-bats (23). On Sunday, he hit his first home run of the spring, and after going 1-for-3 against the Rangers on Monday, raised his average to .192.

It's an important spring for Decker, as spots on the Padres' 40-man roster are very much coveted. Also, it will be a big season for Decker, who has hit .264/.406/.459 in his first five professional seasons.

"At 23, he's had five professional seasons. Now he's just got to play," said Padres manager Bud Black. "Hopefully, he'll put together a season of good health, good at-bats and good defense. We think the talent base is there to come out."

At this point of his career, Decker said he just needs to play.

When he's been healthy, he's been good. He had a .299/.442/.514 line as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League in 2009. The following season, he hit .262/.374/.500 with Class A Lake Elsinore, hitting 17 home runs. He hit .236 in 2011 with San Antonio, but hit 19 home runs, had 92 RBIs and had 29 doubles.

Then came a disastrous 2012, a season he's essentially put out of his mind for good.

"When people asked me how my year was, I always think back to 2011. Because in 2012, nothing really happened for me," Decker said.

These days, Decker is working on looking ahead to a big 2013, one where he hopes to make up for the time he lost last season. That starts this spring.

"Coming in here, I just want to play and show [Black] I can play the game the right way," Decker said.

Corey Brock is a reporter for Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter.
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