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BUD BLACK first season with Padres
FEW CONTENDING teams, never mind a two-time defending division champion, operate on as thin a margin of success as the Padres. The club is doubly challenged by a farm system out of The Grapes of Wrath (no homegrown player has hit 20 home runs for San Diego since first baseman John Kruk in 1987) and a cavernous stadium that only a pitcher could love (over the last three years Petco Park ranks worst in baseball for facilitating runs and next-to-last for being home-run friendly).
The Padres have made an art of finding players and runs wherever they can--and have largely done well at the task. Over the past two years, for instance, San Diego played more games decided by one or two runs (163) than any other NL team; at the same time the Padres won the most games by one run (59) and by two or fewer (87) and had the highest winning percentage in one-run games (.584).
The 2007 club will again be living on the edge, hoping to get low-scoring games into the hands of a solid bullpen that is led by righthanded closer Trevor Hoffman. General manager Kevin Towers, who opened camp with only four homegrown position players on his 40-man roster (shortstop Khalil Greene is the only such starter), has built another slightly above-average offense with under-the-radar trades. His most productive deal came on Jan. 4, 2006, when he swiped a starting first baseman ( Adrian Gonzalez), a starting leftfielder (Terrmel Sledge) and a No. 2 starting pitcher ( Chris Young) from the Rangers for an expendable set-up reliever ( Akinori Otsuka) and an injury-prone starter in his walk year ( Adam Eaton). "The guys we really wanted were Gonzalez and Sledge, and they wound up offering Young," Towers says. "We needed bats, and Gonzalez was a guy who always hit, whatever level he played on, but had not been given a regular chance in Florida or Texas."
The 24-year-old Gonzalez, who grew up in the San Diego area as a Padres fan wearing the number 19 on his amateur teams (the number of his favorite player, Tony Gwynn), had only 192 major league at bats when the Padres acquired him. "I was happy just to get out of Texas because that was a frustrating time for me," says Gonzalez. "The Padres gave me an opportunity to play, and I'm grateful for the confidence that they had in me." Gonzalez wound up hitting .304 with 24 homers and 82 RBIs--numbers that may not sound spectacular but made him the first lefthanded hitter in franchise history to reach those Triple Crown thresholds in the same year.
Now that 36-year-old rightfielder Brian Giles, a longtime number 3 hitter coming off a career-worst .397 slugging percentage, appears to have diminished into a number 2 hitter, Gonzalez has become an offensive cornerstone for San Diego, typically batting fourth between two other modest trade acquisitions in recent years, centerfielder Mike Cameron and catcher Josh Bard. His bat is now a necessity. "I don't think there is such a thing as a 40-home-run guy at Petco Park," first-year manager Bud Black says. "We don't have the superstar player, the Vlad Guerrero, the Albert Pujols. We've got a bunch of good players--from one through eight--which is the strength of our team."
Indeed, when Towers commissioned his statistical analysts to project how good the team looks on paper, they valued the Padres at 92 wins, a four-game improvement over last year. The most obvious concern is that San Diego doesn't have enough depth beyond its modest core players, which means injuries could be especially troublesome. Recent history, however, suggests that the Padres will find a way--just barely--to stay in games and the NL West race.
a modest proposal ...
As the replacement for fast-rising second baseman Josh Barfield, who was traded to the Indians in November, free-agent newcomer Marcus Giles has to be more productive than he's been in recent years. That won't be easy for the 28-year-old Giles (left), who needs to become more aggressive at the plate. Since 2003--when he banged 21 homers and had a .916 on-base plus slugging mark, fantastic numbers for a second baseman--he has gone from seeing 3.49 pitches per plate appearance to 3.88 last season, while his slugging percentage has declined from .526 to .387. That's no accident; over the past three seasons, in at bats that lasted five or more pitches, Giles hit only .214 and slugged .355. Baseball Prospectus was touting the importance of on-base percentage and plate discipline long before it became fashionable, but some hitters take the message too far.