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It's Not Just The Park
AT HIS introductory meeting with Padres players this spring, new batting coach Jim Lefebvre whipped open a fat binder and began a presentation that could have been titled, "You Can Hit in Cavernous Petco Park." "He started spewing out these numbers," says leftfielder Chase Headley, "and he was basically telling us, 'Everyone says that Petco is a graveyard for hitters. Let me tell you why it's not.'"
Lefebvre began reciting the difference between the major league averages and the Petco Park averages in the following categories: batting average on line drives (.738 vs. .722), ground balls (.238 vs. .232) and hard ground balls (.431 vs. .433). His point? There was little discrepancy between the two. The only difference was on balls hit at least 325 feet: Whereas the league average was .405, the average at Petco was .278. "That opened our eyes," says Headley. "Don't swing for the fences, because more than likely you're going to fall short."
Last season the Padres finished with their worst record since 1993, and the reason was as clear as a San Diego morning: an anemic offense that had the fewest runs scored, the worst on-base percentage and the third-most strikeouts. At home the Padres—who scored a respectable 4.3 runs per game on the road—averaged just 3.6 runs and had a puny .366 slugging percentage. Lefebvre is determined to prove that hitters can succeed at Petco; he's even trying to develop a home field advantage. The theme of the spring was, as he puts it, "driving the ball on a line," Lefebvre says. "I want to see line drives and hard ground balls. Don't worry about home runs. I want the guys to work the count and put the ball in play. That's how we're going to score: Get on base and drive runners in."
The philosophy, which the organization's minor league coaches are trying to instill as well, might one day reap better results. But the problem of late is that the club's dismal offensive output (ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring in each of the last four years) has as much to do with a lack of talent as it does with Petco. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, 26, the only Padre to belt more than 23 home runs and slug higher than .500 in 2008, is the lone hitter who strikes fear in opposing pitchers. Headley, 24, is San Diego's only other promising young everyday player; though he lacks home run power, he's a high on-base, line-drive hitter. The Padres bring back an otherwise punchless lineup that will give regular at bats to two hitters (catcher Nick Hundley and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff) who had sub-.300 OBPs last season and a third who barely cleared the .300 mark (shortstop David Eckstein, at .301).
Since moving to Petco in 2004, the Padres have perennially been a no-hit, all-pitch club. This year they could be no-hit and no-pitch. San Diego still has a formidable duo in righthanders Jake Peavy and Chris Young—though the latter's velocity was alarmingly low this spring—atop the rotation; behind them come two serviceable arms with low upsides (Cha Seung Baek and Kevin Correia). There are also red flags in the bullpen. The Padres will rely on setup man Heath Bell, who last year ran out of gas in the second half and had a rough September (6.39 ERA), to replace alltime saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who signed a free-agent deal with Milwaukee. The righthanded Bell arrived at camp 25 pounds lighter after getting a wake-up call from his Wii Fit. "I stepped onto the board and it said I was obese," says the 6'3" Bell, who now weighs 245. "That was shocking. So I took the game to heart. I worked my butt off, and I have to give credit to the Wii."
San Diego won 89 games as recently as two seasons ago, and it's been just three years since the team's last playoff appearance. But with more payroll trimming to come (Peavy is likely to get moved at the trade deadline unless the team is in contention) and little talent in the minors (the Padres have just one player ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects), the forecast in San Diego is bleak—both for the short term and the long.
While the rebuilding Padres had no success in moving righthander Jake Peavy during the winter, they should be aggressively shopping their next most attractive veteran trading chip, Brian Giles (left). Though he's still a high-OBP, high-contact hitter (Giles walked more times than he struck out in each of the last 11 seasons) who can play either corner outfield position, the 38-year-old Californian has no place on a team that has the potential to lose 100 games. San Diego should target contenders in need of a productive corner outfielder—the Indians and the Braves would be high on that list—and try to acquire the high-upside middle infielder its farm system sorely lacks. Keeping Giles, who does have a limited no-trade clause in his contract, slows the process of putting together a contender.