RAGGERS RAIL. that's what San Diego Padre rightfielder Tony Gwynn calls the loud, caustic fans who congregate in the seats along the rightfield line at Desert Sun Stadium in Yuma, Ariz. When Padre rookie infielder Ricky Gutierrez made a fabulous diving stop in the second game of the exhibition season, the Raggers went to work. "Hey, Tony," yelled one member of the Rail. "If he makes the team, they'll have to pay him $109,000 [the major league minimum salary]. That's too much. They'll have to send him to Triple A."
This spring the Raggers Rail crowd has had plenty to holler about. And their protests seem to have carried 180 miles west across the Sonoran Desert to San Diego, where fans and media have been ragging on Padre managing partner Tom Werner. As Gwynn says, "I can't tell you the number of calls I've gotten from people asking, 'What are you guys doing?' "
Good question. Last year San Diego was a contender for the National League West title until late August, an exciting team with a bright future. Seven months later the outlook for the Padres is bleak. Extensive cost cutting ordered by San Diego's 15-man ownership group has crippled the roster and lowered morale throughout the organization.
In the off-season, closer Randy Myers (38 saves in 1992) and All-Star catcher Benito Santiago were free agents who left the team without even getting an offer from the Padres. Standout shortstop Tony Fernandez was traded—practically given away—to the New York Mets after San Diego decided not to fork over the $2.3 million needed to pick up the option year on his contract. Leftfielder Jerald Clark, who was eligible for arbitration, was left unprotected in the expansion draft and became the fourth player chosen by the Colorado Rockies. Reliable relievers Mike Maddux and Jose Melendez were also traded for lower-priced talent. No player acquired by the Padres in any of these moves will make more than $500,000, half the average major league salary, in 1993.
In fact, while the average annual compensation of the departed Myers, Santiago, Fernandez, pitcher Craig Lefferts (whose trade to the Baltimore Orioles seven months ago started the purge) and Clark adds up to $11.5 million in 1993, the income of the players who will fill those vacancies in the Padre lineup—Jeremy Hernandez, Dan Walters, Jeff Gardner, Frank Seminara and Phil Plantier, respectively—totals only $761,500 this season.
What's more, no current San Diego player, including third baseman Gary Sheffield, who chased the Triple Crown in 1992, was offered a multiyear contract in the off-season. "Gary is gone once he's up for free agency [after the '94 season]," says one Padre. "They'll trade him after this season. They made a mistake not signing him to a multiyear deal during last season."
The off-season moves have left San Diego without a proven shortstop or much of a bullpen, and its best pitching and outfield prospects are both still at least two years away from being ready to play in the National League. By Opening Day the Padres are expected to lose centerfielder Darrin Jackson and their best starting pitcher, Bruce Hurst, in trades that will no doubt bring less expensive—and less talented—players to San Diego. The man running the auction is Padre general manager Joe McIlvaine, and it's killing him. "I have to do what the owners want. They want a $21 million payroll, but they also want us to be competitive," says McIlvaine, whose current payroll is $26 million, $11 million less than it would have been had he kept everyone from last year. "One of our owners told me, 'Joe, we're expecting you to perform a miracle.' "
It will be a miracle if San Diego is a contender in the stacked National League West. In fact, if Jackson and Hurst are traded, it will be a miracle if the Padres finish less than 25 games out of first place. "I'm frustrated, upset, mad, like everyone else," says Gwynn, who is in the third year of a five-year, $16.25 million contract. "What we're doing isn't right, but there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not bad-mouthing anyone. But when you make moves to save money, you don't send the right signals to the team or the fans. Then you're in scary territory.
"Everyone in baseball knows what's going on. The baseball vultures are flying above the Padres. They know we're not going to pay everyone, they know we don't have much leverage, so they're playing Pluck the Padres."
San Diego's players aren't the only ones feeling the pinch. One of the Padres' Class A farm teams was dropped, as were a number of minor league coaches. Nineteen employees in the front office were let go; some of those people have been rehired on a contract basis to do the same jobs. There were no raises for front-office employees last year, and they were told to cut down on calls to 411. For the first time in 10 years there was no Christmas tree in the lobby of the Padres' offices; instead, lights were strung on potted plants.