On Thursday, I drove to Peoria to eyeball the San Diego Padres.  They are the most improved team in the NL West and could challenge the Giants and Dodgers for supremacy in the division.

When I got there, they were conducting a catcher’s drill. A coach would load two balls into a machine and the machine would shoot the balls high into the air – like a popup to the catcher in a game. The catcher had to catch one ball, throw it down and then locate and catch the other. It was a challenging exercise and interesting.

Manager Bud Black, a former Giants pitcher, supervised. He has an improved roster.

He has two first-rate starting pitchers – James Shields and Tyson Ross who went to high school at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland. The Giants should be so lucky.

His new catcher is Derek Norris. You remember him.

Matt Kemp, who hit 25 homers last year with the Dodgers, is a new Padres outfielder.

Justin Upton, who had 29 homers and 102 RBIs last year with Atlanta, is another new outfielder.

Will Middlebrooks is the new third baseman. He had a good rookie year with Boston two years ago, flopped last year and got replaced by the Panda. The Padres are taking a Billy-Beane chance on him – that he may realize his potential.

I still consider the Giants better than San Diego. The Giants are the champs of baseball and I favor the champions until someone dethrones them.

After the workout, Bud Black handed me a brand new baseball.

“Don’t say I never gave you anything,” he said.

Did I take payola?