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5. San Diego Padres
Team Page | Schedule | Roster

An emerging rotation hopes for an end to the defense's reign of error

By Josh Elliott

 

The pen, anchored by the fearsome Hoffman, is one of the mightiest, but the Padres' lineup remains largely bereft of swords.  Stephen Dunn/ Allsport
ENEMY LINES
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Padres
"The Padres are going to take their lumps because they cut so much payroll.... Ryan Klesko would probably rather be playing the outfield than first base. As a hitter he's become very consistent, and if you don't pay attention, he'll steal a base.... Damian Jackson has good range and moves his feet well, but he's very inconsistent on routine plays and struggles turning the double play. He has speed, but his swing is big, and he tries to hit too many home runs.... I've heard people talking about how well Phil Nevin plays third base now, but I haven't seen it. He's there for his bat. He has as much power to rightfield as to left. You have to get the ball inside on him.... Ben Davis looks like the prototypical catcher -- he's big and strong, blocks the ball well, throws well -- so why can't he be better? There's something up with his intangibles. He needs a good kick in the ass from a veteran player.... Wiki Gonzalez is a very good catcher; he's right behind [the Brewers'] Henry Blanco as far as throwing in this league.... I'd take Eric Owens on my club in a heartbeat. He has one speed: all out. His arm is above average, he runs balls down in the gap, and he's a solid offensive player who runs the bases well and hits for average.... Mike Darr has a good arm and runs well, but he hasn't established himself as a major league hitter.... Rickey Henderson could be a good signing. He's in phenomenal shape and can still be disruptive to the opposition -- and the Padres really need help in the outfield. The only drawback is that he might take some young kid's job."
Even the Padres must do what they can to spin the advent of a new season as a good thing, and so the quartet of Woody Williams, Matt Clement, Adam Eaton and Bobby J. Jones was pulled from the practice field at the Peoria, Ariz., training complex to pose for any number of up-with-San Diego posters. These four were an apt choice, and not just because they will constitute a capable, if largely anonymous, rotation. On a team whose sole superstar is playing on borrowed time (and bum knees), whose defense was terrible a year ago (and not upgraded in the off-season) and whose power is Lilliputian (its starting outfield combined for eight home runs), the politely smiling pitchers were the Padres' only reason to harbor fantasies of a .500 finish. "Each day we'll put someone out there who can win," Williams says.

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


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