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They Play in Peoria, but . . . : The Padres Have the Cheapest Roster in Baseball--and They Also Have Veterans Such as Gwynn, Whose Leadership Might Bring Some Talented Unknowns Together

March 27, 1994|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PEORIA, Ariz. — A San Diego Padre television promo that Tony Gwynn would love to see late this summer:

" Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, dressed in Giant and Dodger uniforms, are looking at a posse of Padres hot on their heels. Bewildered and frightened, they ask, 'Who are those guys?' "

"Maybe, by the end of the season, people will know who we are," Gwynn says, smiling.

That's one huge maybe.

Still, in the luxury of their new spring-training facility in this suburb of Phoenix--an appropriate locale for a team trying to rise from the ashes--the Padres dare to dream.

Forget they lost 101 games last season.

Forget the distractions caused by ownership's fire sale of big contracts and big names.

Forget that what most of these kids know about winning in the big leagues can be written inside a matchbook.

Even Manager Jim Riggleman says he feels good about the direction the club is headed.

"We've got a really nice core of young people who are already good players," Gwynn said. "And I think a lot of guys learned something last year. They learned you can put blinders on and still play.

"Most of these guys were here for at least part of the year and they know what it's like to come to the park every day and answer questions about what's happening to the club. With guys getting traded every other day, rumors every day and all the negativism flowing through the place, it's absolutely amazing some of these kids did what they did last year."

Gwynn put in his .358 worth and the Padres had the third-highest run total in club history. But they also had poor starting pitching except for Andy Benes and played dreadful defense. As a result, no San Diego team in the last two decades has lost as many games . . . or as many fans.

Fred McGriff. Gary Sheffield. Greg Harris. Management made the trades, reducing the payroll to less than $14 million, by far the lowest in baseball, and turned Jack Murphy Stadium into a lonely place.

And ownership--a group of 15 millionaires--isn't doing much to help. One minority owner spent the first week of spring training in full uniform until he was noticed strolling across the infield while outfielder Phil Plantier, who had 34 homers and 100 runs batted in last season, was sending rockets out of the batting cage.

Majority owner Tom Werner points out that they did sign Gwynn, whose average exceeded .300 for the 11th consecutive season, for four more years. They signed free agent Bip Roberts, who fills a void at the leadoff spot. And they still have Benes, who is only 26.

Werner appears to be banking on a revenue-sharing plan and salary cap coming out of collective bargaining with the players. He says the Padres won't be able to achieve success the "Toronto way" and will have to do it the "Montreal way."

The fans aren't convinced. The Padres have sold fewer than 3,000 season tickets.

Back in Peoria, however, they are trying hard to believe in themselves.

"We're young and we're going to make mistakes," says Benes, who gave up two or fewer runs in 17 of his 34 starts last season and ended up 15-15. "But you can't get experience unless you play, and we hope some of the lumps we took last year will pay off in a positive way down the road. So throwing these talented young guys in the fire has its benefits."

San Diego's list of well-known players ends with Gwynn and Benes. After that, you can't tell the Padres without a scorecard.

The outfield is the foundation, where Gwynn and Plantier are joined by Derek Bell, who hit 21 homers last season and is impressing teammates this spring.

San Diego figures to be set for a long time at shortstop, where 23-year-old Ricky Gutierrez hit .251 and ranked fourth defensively among National League shortstops as a rookie last season, and catcher, where Brad Ausmus hit five homers and batted .256 in 49 games.

Roberts is clearly a plus at second and in the leadoff spot.

The jury is out on Archi Cianfrocco at third and Dave Staton at first, however.

Riggleman has made it clear that both will have to swing the bat to keep their jobs because neither has the skills to improve San Diego's defense.

Staton, who played at Tustin High, Orange Coast College and Cal State Fullerton, hit one home run in every eight at-bats when he came up last September. His first big league hit was a second-deck shot against the Dodgers' Kevin Gross and his first at-bat this spring yielded a tape-measure homer.

Cianfrocco had 11 home runs and 47 RBIs in 84 games last season after coming over in a trade with Montreal in June.

The problem is the rest of the rotation after Benes. Their No. 2 starter is Wally Whitehurst, who started last season on the disabled list, twice was knocked out of games by line drives, was put back on the disabled list after the All-Star break, then came off and went back on a again, both times because of rotator-cuff problems.

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