5. San Diego Padres
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An emerging rotation hopes for an end to the defense's reign of error
By Josh Elliott
Such optimism, blind though it may be, is a sentiment shared by all the starters, and most of the credit belongs to Williams, San Diego's accidental ace. Before last season, the 34-year-old righty was, at best, a decent No. 2 man often consumed, he says, by skyrocketing stress levels. Then, after a 5-2 loss to Florida last May 1, he felt numbness in his upper right arm; later, an aneurysm was discovered under his right armpit. "I didn't know what it meant, if it was life-threatening or not," he says. "I didn't know if I'd pitch again."
After surgery to remove the aneurysm, the pitcher's perspective underwent an overhaul. "It gave me time to reflect on my life," says Williams, who spent two months on the disabled list. "I realized how much my family means to me and how I'd let baseball interfere. I became a better husband, a better father. I learned to relax. Truth is, the aneurysm is the best thing that ever happened to me."
With his emotions -- and his changeup -- under control, Williams was a better pitcher upon his return, finishing the year with a National League-best 7.3 innings per start. Moreover, he became the Padres' clubhouse leader. "To watch him go through that and to see how he came out of it a better person was amazing," Eaton says. "It's why I'm drawn to him. I can't thank him enough."
In Eaton, 23, the Padres have a righthander they believe will someday replace Williams at the top of the rotation. Acquired in the 1999 deal that sent Andy Ashby to Philadelphia, Eaton was impressive early (5-2, 2.89 ERA in his first 16 starts) before succumbing to late-season exhaustion (2-2, 8.69 ERA in his last six starts). "He's the best pitcher we've had in the organization in my 18 years here," says general manager Kevin Towers. "He throws four pitches for strikes and can bring it when he needs to." Clement has very good stuff but must improve his control (5.5 walks per nine innings), and Jones was a surprisingly cheap pickup (one year, $625,000) who pitched well in last year's postseason.
The bullpen too is strong, as setup men Tom Davey and Kevin Walker will give opponents more to worry about in the late innings than just Trevor Hoffman. "Those guys have to step up because we won't score a ton of runs," says skipper Bruce Bochy. "We'll have to beat people with pitching and defense."
Ah, there's the rub. San Diego's 141 errors last season were the most in the majors. Hamstrung by a scant $37 million payroll, the division's smallest by almost $30 million, the front office could do little to improve things during the winter. It's sad that the Padres' Keystone Kop routine afield could overshadow Tony Gwynn's 20th and most likely final year in San Diego. After a particularly acrimonious negotiation in the off-season, Gwynn returns following knee surgery that allowed him to enter camp as fit, he says, as he's been in seven years. "I'm tired of hearing that I'm too fat and too old," says the certain Hall of Famer. "I want to get through this year, to really contribute and not just lie down." But Gwynn appeared in a mere 36 games in 2000, and he has played in 130 games just twice since 1992, so the Padres can't count on him as they once did. At the same time Gwynn has no interest in being what he seemingly has become: a tarnished Rolls-Royce hood ornament affixed to a Pinto.
"We were brutal a year ago, to the point where we should've been embarrassed," Gwynn says. "We're professionals; Bruce shouldn't have to tell us to pick things up. Playing good defense, at some point, is a pride thing. For our pitchers' sake, we'd better figure that out."
Issue date: March 26, 2001