© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

03/07/11 9:52 PM ET

Hundley ready to handle duties on his own

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Nick Hundley essentially lost his mentor du jour. This time the 27-year-old Padres catcher will be more on his own.

And he's ready for it, said manager Bud Black, assessing the fallout from the sudden retirement of Gregg Zaun. The 39-year-old catching veteran of 16 seasons had been in camp as a non-roster invitee but, health permitting, was fully expected to have Hundley's back at backstop.

Just as Yorvit Torrealba had last season, and Henry Blanco the season before that and Josh Bard in 2008 -- veteran hands taking handoffs in chaperoning the development of Hundley.

Now Hundley is the "old" hand. A couple of the catchers remaining in camp, including three other non-roster hopefuls, have a few years on Hundley. But none can match his Major League experience of having caught 209 games for the Padres the last three seasons.

"I think he's up for the challenge," Black said. "He wants to do it. The will is there, and the talent is there. We'll give him this responsibility. The two guys we've had the last couple of years have been very solid. Henry was outstanding. Yorvit and Nick worked great together. Both were very unselfish.

"We're hoping that Nick takes that step forward where he can catch a lot of games."

Asked how many games would be that "lot," Black facetiously said, "One hundred thirty-one."

Anything close to that would exceed Hundley's previous workload high: 76 games last season, including 73 starts. (Torrealba started 89, then departed as a free agent for the Rangers.)

That's fine with Hundley, whose biggest regret is not getting to know Zaun as well as he did his predecessors.

"Ask anybody in this room if they'd take a 16-year career with a World Series championship. I bet every one of them would say yes," said Hundley, citing Zaun's career milestones. "You're just happy for him, proud of him that he went out when and how he wanted. It takes a lot of courage. It was my pleasure to get to know him for a couple of weeks."

The job of being Hundley's top caddy now falls to Rob Johnson, the former Mariners receiver who is hoping for a deferred total comeback from operations on both hips after the 2009 season.

Johnson has the second-most Major League experience in camp, having caught 155 games the past four seasons for Seattle. Johnson's preparation has been delayed by a sore side, but he made his first start on Monday night against the Royals -- as the DH.

"He's real close to playing," Black said. "He'll test his side in drills before the game, and if he's OK, you'll probably see him in the lineup at catcher in a day or two."

The third catcher on the roster is Luis Martinez, who has 11 games of Triple-A seasoning. The remaining non-roster candidates are Kyle Phillips (five big league games, in 2009 with the Blue Jays), Guillermo Quiroz (71 Major League games) and the "kid," Jason Hagerty, the 23-year-old 2009 Draftee who reached Triple-A last season to catch five games at Portland.

Black implied that the Padres could start the season with three catchers on the 25-man roster because of several early off-days that would make needless the normal 12-man pitching staff for the first few weeks. Because the club has three byes between March 31 and April 7, a fifth starter won't be needed until mid-April.

"Maybe we could go with two fewer pitchers, which would allow us to keep two extra position players," Black said. "I doubt we'll go that far, but we could. We could get by with three starters going on regular rest for a while."

Johnson, too, gave Zaun a virtual tip of the cap.

"To have that long of a career is amazing," Johnson said. "But as far as I'm concerned, you've got to take care of yourself, you've got to get your own work in, control the things that you can control."

As for Zahn's decision to hang them up following his first three-inning Cactus League game appearance, Black said, "For 99 percent of players, it comes down to their will as well as their physical condition, and he was another example of that. And I completely understand."

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.