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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Padres View the West as Wide Open

March 18, 2004|Ross Newhan

PEORIA, Ariz. — Amid some belt tightening in the National League West, the San Diego Padres have an expanding payroll and promise.

Less than six months after finishing the 2003 season with 98 losses, the Padres think they can wipe out all of their 36 1/2-game division deficit.

Outhouse to penthouse?

"We've got a chance that we haven't had," closer Trevor Hoffman said. "The last few years have been like a minor league tryout."

Injuries and economics have handcuffed the Padres since their 1998 National League title, creating a revolving door to the clubhouse as ownership slogged through a legal quagmire that delayed the opening of its new ballpark.

Now, with that debut less than three weeks away and management's having modestly inflated the payroll to take advantage of what General Manager Kevin Towers labels a "regression" in the rest of the West, the pumped Padres think they have the ability and stability to hurdle the field.

"No excuses," Manager Bruce Bochy said. "The expectations are higher and ours are as well. We have a lot of ground to make up, but we've acquired the players to help us do it."

Among the acquisitions were pitcher David Wells, catcher Ramon Hernandez and outfielder Jay Payton. The payroll has gone from $47 million to $56 million, with the possibility of surpassing $60 million if Wells cashes in all of his incentives.

Suddenly, the Padres are looking at 3 million in attendance and more than $100 million in total revenue, putting them in baseball's top 10, but whether the division standings will truly reflect that improved ledger remains a question.

Amid the optimism of March, much has to fall into place, and again health is an issue.

* Can Boomer Wells, 41 in May and coming off back surgery after lasting only one inning as the New York Yankee starter in Game 5 of the World Series, provide leadership at the front of the rotation? That is, when he's not diving into the mosh pit at a Metallica concert, as he reportedly did while preparing for his first spring start in Arizona, prompting Towers to ask what a mosh pit is.

"I'm not sure why a guy coming off back surgery would want to dive into one," the general manager said with something of a straight face, "but there's nothing in his contract to prevent moshing, only spelunking."

* Can Phil Nevin, targeted to play first base in his latest position switch and having recently injured the same shoulder he dislocated on the same day in the same way while diving for a ball as a left fielder last March, truly stick with his determination not to dive again when he returns from a month of rehabilitation to a lineup that needs his bat?

"It's hard not to react when a ball's hit," Nevin said, "but there comes a time when I have to make an adjustment in what I do. If I keep dislocating and damaging my shoulder, you can only fix it so many times before it affects my career, if it hasn't already."

* Can Payton, signed as a free agent and now recovering from another in a career series of hamstring injuries, stay sound enough to cover more ground than the CHP while playing center field between Ryan Klesko and Brian Giles in the expanded outfield of Petco Park?

"There's definitely a lot of room in right center," said Nevin, who has expressed frustration with the dimensions in that area of Petco, "and the one thing we don't have is a lot of outfield speed. Of course, we don't know how the park will play in summer."

* Can Hoffman regain his closer dominance after two shoulder surgeries and can Rod Beck, hampered this spring by health and personal problems, adapt to the set-up role? Can rookie Khalil Greene fill the shortstop void? Can Jake Peavy, Adam Eaton and Brian Lawrence take the next step in fulfilling the Padre rotation hopes behind Wells, or will they compound the uncertainty that surrounds the new No. 1?

"We think they've become proven major league pitchers at this point," Bochy said of his three twentysomething pitchers, "and we're not looking for [Wells] to be the savior. He's been through a lot, however, and he can help take some of the pressure off."

The Padres also think an improved offense will relieve some of that pressure. Only the Dodgers and New York Mets scored fewer than their 678 runs in the National League last year, but Towers is hopeful that a lineup augmented by Payton and Hernandez, and including a sound Klesko and Nevin, will score a franchise record 800 or more.

"The goal is 800," Towers said. "If we reach it, and our pitching is adequate or decent, we have a chance to win the division."

If so, that would put them a year ahead of schedule. The initial plan, said Towers, was to enjoy a honeymoon summer in Petco before pointing toward 2005 with critical changes.

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