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San Diego Padres
After heavy losses the league champs face a fate sadder than a Garth Brooks ballad
By David Fleming
After watching Garth Brooks strike out on five pitches in his first intrasquad scrimmage, it was obvious that the country music superstar, who had a spring-training tryout with defending National League champion San Diego, would contribute little to the club as a pigeon-toed leftfielder. But if the Padres are in need of a theme song for the 1999 season, Brooks is definitely their man.
Some lines from Shameless, Brooks's 1991 hit -- "I'm shameless, I don't have the power now, I don't want it anyhow, So I got to let it go" -- aptly describe the team's off-season moves following its World Series sweep at the hands of the Yankees. After coaxing San Diego voters to back a referendum for a new stadium by implying that they would keep the team competitive, the Padres turned into the Marlins West, trading away or failing to sign many of the players instrumental in the franchise's second pennant-winning season in its 30-year history.
No mean feat considering they've lost leftfielder Greg Vaughn (50 home runs, 119 RBIs) and utilityman Mark Sweeney, who were traded to the Reds for leftfielder Reggie Sanders, backup infielder Damian Jackson and righthanded pitching prospect Josh Harris; ace Kevin Brown, a free agent who signed the biggest contract in baseball history -- with the Dodgers; centerfielder Steve Finley, a free agent who moved on to the Diamondbacks; third baseman Ken Caminiti, a free agent who badly wanted to return to Houston; and righthander Joey Hamilton, who was traded to the Blue Jays for pitchers Woody Williams and Carlos Almanzar.
"I miss Sweeney and Vaughn," says Gwynn, who's just 72 hits shy of 3,000. "The free-agent stuff was understandable, but the trades really surprised me. How do you ship a guy who hit 50 home runs? We're going to miss all of those guys, but in the long run we're going to miss Sweeney and Vaughn the most. They were the heart of our clubhouse."
The bullpen is the one part of the team that's still intact. Last year San Diego's relievers led the majors with 31 wins and 59 saves. Best of all, since July 24, 1996, the Padres have won 174 straight games when leading after eight innings. Expect more of the same this season. Closer Trevor Hoffman, who became the richest reliever in history when he signed a four-year, $32 million contract on March 8, saved a league-record 53 games last year and was the runner-up in National League Cy Young balloting -- even though he received more first-place votes than winner Tom Glavine of the Braves. Setting up Hoffman will be reliable righthanders Dan Miceli (10 wins, the most by a National League reliever, and a home ERA of 1.96) and Brian Boehringer (2.39 ERA, only 16 hits allowed in 26 innings after Aug. 1) and veteran lefty Randy Myers (347 career saves, fifth on the alltime list).
Moving up in the starting rotation are righthander Andy Ashby and lefty Sterling Hitchcock, a split-finger specialist who went 3-0 and struck out 25 in 16 innings of the National League playoffs. Righthanded hitter Ruben Rivera, who batted .133 against righties last year, takes over in center. George Arias, who has yet to play a full season in the majors, gets first crack at replacing Caminiti. Just a tad nervous about the upcoming season, Arias rang up Caminiti for advice. "He said people in San Diego have to turn the page," says Arias. "That's what we have to do. It's my turn now, and I'm ready."
Replacing Vaughn in left is the speedy but oft-injured Sanders. He'll bat second behind second baseman Quilvio Veras, who had an on-base percentage of .398 at the All-Star break last year before he was hampered by injuries to both shoulders. "Veras is one of the best-kept secrets in the National League," says manager Bruce Bochy.
Veras and Sanders will be followed in the order by Gwynn and first baseman Wally Joyner -- the two best hitters in the league with runners in scoring position over the last five seasons. The Padres will try to score early, keep the games close and let Hoffman (0.49 ERA in save situations in '98) work his magic.
One more thing: Gwynn, 38, and Joyner, 36, have to stay healthy. Last year nagging injuries kept them from playing together in 30 straight games from Aug. 12 through Sept. 13, during which San Diego lost 14 times. "This year may be tough on everyone," says Gwynn. "People will want our new guys to match the numbers of the players they replaced, and they'll want the rest of us to play as well as we did last year. That's a lot to ask."
A more likely scenario is that the Padres will plummet from first to last in their division, just as they did following the 1996 season. That kind of collapse might merit another diversionary visit from Brooks, who will, at that point, truly have Friends in Low Places.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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