DENVER -- San Diego outfielder Will Venable, on the 15-day disabled list since July 3 with a lower back strain, could begin taking batting practice this weekend.

Manager Bud Black indicated that Venable could start hitting before the team takes a four-day break for the All-Star Game.

Venable said his range of motion has improved, and he has responded well to exercises for his back.

"It's getting better every day," he said.

Venable, who was placed on the DL retroactive to July 2, is eligible to return on July 17 for the Padres' third game back from the All-Star break.

Venable, who could be sent out on a brief Minor League rehabilitation assignment late next week, was beginning to heat up at the plate after a few mechanical adjustments, raising his average from .227 on June 19 to .242 on June 28.

And for as much as he would like to step right back into action the way he was swinging the bat, Venable is realistic enough to know it doesn't always work that way.

"You can't just flip on a switch and feel like I felt," Venable said.

Intriguing ninth-round pick signs deal

DENVER -- San Diego hasn't reached an agreement with its first-round pick, pitcher Karsten Whitson, though it did sign a notable pitcher from the June First-Year Player Draft on Friday.

Left-handed pitcher Josh Spence, selected in the ninth round from Arizona State, passed a physical in San Diego and will likely begin his professional career in the coming week.

Spence agreed to a deal close to ninth-round slot money, somewhere between $85,000 and $125,000, according to a source.

Spence, who was a third-round Draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels in 2009, missed the entire season at Arizona State because of a nerve problem in his left elbow.

"We're excited," said San Diego director of scouting Jaron Madison. "He's totally healthy and passed his physical with no problems. He's not a kid who will light up the radar ... but he commands his fastball down and to both sides of the plate. He throws strikes."

Spence was 1-0 with a 0.90 ERA in three starts with Cotuit of the Cape Cod League. He missed the Sun Devils' trip to the College World Series.

Spence was 10-1 with a 2.37 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 2009 for the Sun Devils, and he struck out 16 in two starts in the College World Series.

Before coming to Arizona State, Spence, who is from Australia, was 27-7 with a 1.40 ERA in two seasons at Central Arizona Junior College.

The Padres have signed four of their top nine picks. The team has until Aug. 16 to sign their remaining picks.

Eckstein close to returning to lineup

DENVER -- David Eckstein said Friday that he didn't even know he had a Soleus muscle.

But it's the Soleus muscle, the powerful muscle in his right calf, which has given him fits and prevented him from starting at second base since July 3. The injury is officially being called a strain.

Eckstein, who did appear as a defensive replacement on Tuesday in Washington, said that he's close to returning to the starting lineup.

However, after Friday, the Padres have only two games remaining before taking four days off for the All-Star break.

"We're going to try and be smart about it," Eckstein said, when asked if it might not be better if he rests this weekend and then uses the break to get completely healthy. "... It's getting better. My mobility is a lot better."

San Diego manager Bud Black said Friday that he'll defer to Eckstein on when he's ready to return.

"He does the right thing," Black said of Eckstein. "When he tells me he's ready to play without issues, I'll believe him."

Jerry Hairston got the start at second base against the Rockies on Friday.

Eckstein isn't entirely sure when the injury occurred, if it was on the last road trip to Florida during a slide, but it really started bothering him in a game against the Astros July 3 at PETCO Park.

With heel 'better,' Gwynn pinch-hits

DENVER -- The three home runs Washington's Adam Dunn hit on Wednesday did more than just sink San Diego. They also gave outfielder Tony Gwynn a big pain in his left heel.

Gwynn, who wasn't in the starting lineup for the second day in a row on Friday in the series opener against Colorado but did hit a pinch-hit double in the sixth, hurt the heel after landing on it while trying to climb the wall to corral the second of Dunn's home runs.

"I didn't realize I had climbed as far as I did," Gwynn said. "I lost my balance and landed on my heel."

The injury is being called a bruise, though Gwynn said on Friday that the heel "felt better." He was hopeful to be back in the lineup on Saturday. He wouldn't have started Friday anyway with Colorado left-hander Jorge De La Rosa getting the start.

Chris Denorfia started in center field on Friday.

Gwynn is having a suburb season defensively and has posted a UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating over 150 games) of 49.8.

"My legs are the most important part on my body," Gwynn said.