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5 san diego Padres
Lars Anderson
March 27, 2000
Trades have beefed up the batting order, but the rotation remains weak
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March 27, 2000

5 San Diego Padres

Trades have beefed up the batting order, but the rotation remains weak

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1999 record: 74-89 (fourth in NL West)

Batting average

.252 (16)

Opponents' batting average

.266 (8)

Runs scored

710 (15)

ERA

4.47 (8)

Home runs

153 (15)

Fielding percentage

.979 (11)

The new pitching machine, weighing 20 pounds and resembling a large black video camera on a tripod, sits in batting cage 1 at the Padres' spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz. It has been dubbed by a few of the players as the Ah-Crap-I-Can't-Hit-Lefties machine, but it will help determine how much success San Diego will have in 2000.

The device, which can replicate a lefthander's curveball and slider among other deliveries, belongs to lefthanded-hitting first baseman Ryan Klesko, who has trouble hitting those two pitches. In fact, he has a career .298 average against righthanders but has hit only .208 against southpaws. Acquired in a six-player trade with the Braves in December, Klesko bought the machine in January and plans to bat against it throughout the season, even taking it on the road. If the hot-and-cold-running slugger can ever become consistently productive, he could be a devastating force at the plate and help turn the Padres, who won the pennant in 1998 but fell to 74-88 last year, into a contender again. If he doesn't, then San Diego's season could be another big whiff.

Klesko welcomes the fresh start. "This is a totally different atmosphere from Atlanta, and I mean that in a good way," says Klesko, who isn't expected to sit against lefthanders as he often did with the Braves. "There's not the pressure that there is in Atlanta. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."

One of the biggest pluses for the Padres may be team chemistry. For example, the entire infield—Klesko, second baseman Bret Boone (also acquired in the Braves deal), shortstop Chris Gomez and third baseman Phil Nevin—grew up in Southern California and played against each other in high school and college. They are good friends and happy to be on the same side. Combine that sort of attitude with the Padres' desire to play hard for manager Bruce Bochy, and you've got the foundation for an overachieving team.

Here's why San Diego has to overachieve to be successful. The starting rotation has only one member—lefthander Sterling Hitchcock (60-56)—with a winning career record. No player in the projected lineup hit more than 24 home runs last year, and the only every-day players to bat higher than .277 were Klesko and eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn. Worse, in 1999, only the Marlins and the Twins scored fewer runs than the Padres. That's why acquiring Klesko, who averaged 24 home runs and 82 RBIs the past four seasons in Atlanta, was a priority. "We have big expectations of Ryan," says Bochy. "We wanted him and Boone [44 homers the last two years] in our lineup. We wanted their power."

Another reason Klesko was so attractive to Bochy and San Diego general manager Kevin Towers was the success he has had at Qualcomm Stadium: a .323 average with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 96 at bats. But to get him, Towers had to ship outfielder Reggie Sanders and second baseman Quilvio Veras to the Braves. The trade may have brought added power to the Padres, but it also made them slower. (Sanders and Veras combined for 66 stolen bases last year to 19 for Boone and Klesko.) The success of the deal hinges on Klesko's ability to improve against southpaws, against whom he went 5 for 49 last year. Throughout his career, Klesko has been unable to see a lefthander's pitch nearly as well as he can pick up a righthander's.

"While in Atlanta, he didn't see lefthanders every day, and I can't emphasize enough how much that means," says San Diego hitting coach Ben Oglivie. "I'm a lefthanded hitter myself, and I know from experience you have to be deluged by lefthanded pitching to be effective. The pitching machine will help him identify pitches and, perhaps more importantly, help him psychologically."

If Klesko emerges as the cleanup hitter, he'll bat behind the 39-year-old Gwynn, who's fully recovered from a strained left calf that forced him to miss 51 games last year, and in front of Nevin. The No. 1 pick in the 1992 draft, by the Astros, Nevin is a late bloomer who batted cleanup last year and is coming off his best season. To replace Veras in the leadoff spot, San Diego acquired leftfielder Al Martin from the Pirates at the start of spring training.

Anytime the Padres can take a lead into the ninth inning, closer Trevor Hoffman, with 93 saves in 97 opportunities the past two years, can almost guarantee them a victory. The difficulty for San Diego, given its lack of quality starting pitching, will be putting Hoffman in save situations. "Most people will pick us to finish last in our division, and that's fine with us," says Bochy. "I think we can play with anybody, because we have a good nucleus of guys who know each other and will play hard for each other."

The Padres' new ballpark is scheduled to open in 2002, and Towers is pointing to have his club rebuilt into a World Series contender by that season. In the meantime, there's plenty of work to be done.

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