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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : Confident Padres Ready to Make Their Title Charge : San Diego: Addition of Joe Carter gives team more offensive punch and new hope after disappointing season. But a strong start is important.


There's no boasting. No signs of arrogance. Not even a hint of cockiness.

Unlike a year ago, when the Padres appeared to be more worried about their allotment of World Series tickets than opening day, these Padres enter the 1990 season exuding a quiet, comfortable confidence.

They watched all spring how they clobbered opponents with ease. They saw how easily the runs kept coming across the plate. They were reminded how baseball can be fun again.

When they left spring training camp a year ago, everyone believed this team would win the division because of the additions of pitcher Bruce Hurst and slugger Jack Clark.

Well, they were in fourth place by the All-Star break and 12 games out by the last week of July.

Although they won 42 of their final 63 games, it was too late. They finished second, three games behind the San Francisco Giants.

This year, the Padres vow it will be different. They're not about to be caught in the trap again of making predictions, but at times this spring they even scared themselves with their talent.

"I've been around this game long enough to know that anything can happen," said Jack McKeon, Padre manager and vice president/baseball operations. "We could be hit by injuries, guys having bad years, anything.

"But I've also been around long enough to know this could be one hell of a team."

Maestro, the questions, please:

Q: Will the change of ownership be a distraction this season?

A: Nah, the players weren't exactly teary-eyed when they heard the news in the first place. Their only apprehension is that the group of owners, headed by Hollywood producer Tom Werner, will start bringing friends and family into the clubhouse and players will be interviewed more on Entertainment Tonight than ESPN.

Q: How much are the Padres going to miss Mark Davis?

A: The Padres would like you to believe that Davis' departure to Kansas City will only be a matter of inconvenience. But to be truthful, it's going to be difficult. The key is Craig Lefferts, who's stepping into Davis' role as the bullpen stopper. It's vital that he gets off to a good start, the Padre coaches say, just for his own confidence. Lefferts struggled in spring training, and those closest to him say he's worrying about filling Davis' shoes much more than he lets on. The Padres still have Greg Harris, who will get his share of saves, and Calvin Schiraldi is available for the stopper's role if needed.

Q: What's this talk about Jack McKeon stepping aside as manager at the end of the season and going upstairs to run the baseball operations?

A: No one can answer that yet, least of all McKeon. If he has to make a decision at the end of the season, the choice will be easy. He'll return upstairs. But if given the option to remain in dual roles or be strictly the general manager, his decision likely will hinge on the club's success this season. He'd love to leave with a World Series ring on his finger, proving every critic wrong who doubted his managerial abilities.

The idea of hanging up his spikes was broached by McKeon's friends in the off-season. They told him he has nothing to prove. Considering he turns 60 in November, it's not so wise any more to be working 16-hour days. McKeon's only promise to them was that he'd consider it and will make a decision sometime near the end of the season. Certainly, there will be some financial ramifications involved. McKeon's managerial contract, which pays him about $400,000 a year, doesn't expire until the end of the 1991 season.

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the strength of the Padres' starting rotation, but aren't there a lot of questions and concerns?

A: Secretly, the Padres are a bit apprehensive about their rotation. With the exception of Bruce Hurst, who has averaged 16 victories the past three seasons, there are questions about every other starter. How will Eric Show's back respond under the duress of a full season? Will Andy Benes tear up the league as he did the final month of the season or will he pitch like a 22-year-old kid who has been in the big leagues all of 54 days? Will Dennis Rasmussen continue to pitch behind in the count all season? Will Ed Whitson have another career season like a year ago when he won 16 games, or struggle to post a .500 record?

Q: How about the defense? It looks a little shaky, particularly in the infield.

A: Ok, so this is a flaw. This is a team that made 154 errors last season, the second-highest in the National League, and made 13 errors in the first five games of spring training. The Padres' best defensive infielder is second baseman Roberto Alomar, and he made 28 errors, the most of any second basemen in the major leagues. The rest of the Padre infielders are considered just average defensively. Tony Gwynn, who has won three Gold Gloves, remains the best defensive outfielder. Joe Carter is best-suited for left field instead of center, scouts say, but likely will stay there.

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