Padres another feel-good story
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
All spring and well into April, they heard themselves referred to as "the worst team in baseball." Even three weeks ago, when they swept a National League Central opponent on the road, the opposing general manager referred to them as "the worst team in our league."
|Mark Kotsay has helped carry the Padres with his bat.|
The Padres never promised climbing as high as even fourth place in the NL West. Bruce Bochy kept reminding his players that they were judged to be the worst of the worst, while GM Kevin Towers said, "I really think we're better than we were last year." So, in a division that saw every one of the five teams in first place in a one-week span, when the Pads found themselves kings for a day it was arguably more of a surprise than the rise of the Twins and Phillies.
Because of delays in the construction of their new ballpark that now won't open until mid-2003, Towers had to slash payroll by $18 million. The cuts left the Padres' payroll at $38 million, fifth-lowest in the majors and far below their divisional rivals, who range from the Giants' $64 million to the Dodgers' $109 million.
So, while the entire organization set out to improve what was the worst defense in the division last season, there will be nights when the entire defense implodes -- as it did Friday night against Arizona -- and there will be stretches when their starting rotation -- which combined makes less money than Kevin Appier -- fights for survival.
But entering Memorial Day weekend, the Padres were second in the league in ERA. More amazing, they were second in the league in runs -- first among teams that don't play games in a home field that's a mile high.
One major reason is that the Pads have worked hard at becoming a patient team.
Another is that Rickey Henderson has been, well, incredible. Remember, the only way Rickey even got a tryout with the Padres was that he personally called Towers. Now he's got an on-base percentage over .400.
"Rickey rubs off on everyone with whom he plays," says Towers. "Now we have four or five players with on-base percentages over .400. I can't believe it, but he's better now than he was when he was with us in '96 -- runs better, is strong, more power, better defensively. I think he can play another two or three years.
OK, Rickey jumped into Towers' lap. But go down that team and look at what Towers has done as a general manager.
First baseman Ryan Klesko, emerging as one of the league's premier sluggers. Came with Bret Boone for Reggie Sanders and Quilvio Veras. So Veras for Klesko. Take that.
Third baseman Phil Nevin. For Andy Sheets.
Left fielder Bubba Trammell. For Donne Wall. "Bubba told me he'd play for free if he got 500 at-bats," says Towers. "I told him I might call him on it, and he said, 'Give me 500 at-bats and I'll make it back up in arbitration.' "
Center fielder Mark Kotsay. With Cesar Crespo for Matt Clement and Eric Owens. Some questioned this deal when it was made, but Kotsay has begun blossoming, is a superb center fielder, a good No. 2 hitter and Towers compares him to "a young Steve Finley." The 22-year old switch-hitting Crespo has close to a .400 on-base percentage in the Coast League and will be brought up this week.
Outfielder Mike Darr. For Jody Reed.
Catchers Ben Davis, the No. 2 pick in the '95 June draft, and Wiki Gonzalez, acquired for $4000 in the minor league draft.
Shortstop Donaldo Mendez. Acquired in the Rule V draft.
Pitcher Adam Eaton. For Andy Ashby.
Also, pitchers Woody Williams (for Joey Hamilton), Brian Tollberg (for a minor league infielder named Jose Fernandez), Bobby Jones (signed for $600,000), Jay Witasick (for Brian Meadows), and Tom Davey (in dumping Al Martin). The bullpen has been one of the best in the league, which Towers says "has a lot to do with the way Trevor Hoffman has helped Witasick and Davey mature. His leadership value cannot be exaggerated."
Then look in the minors. RHP Dennis Tankersley, who had an 0.52 ERA in the California League and is called "our best pitching prospect" by Towers. He was acquired from the Red Sox for Ed Sprague. One of their best positional prospects, OF Ben Johnson, was picked up from St. Louis in dumping Carlos Hernandez's contract.
"We know we still have a way to go, and we're always on a building curve," says Towers. "In another year, we could have Sean Burroughs at third, Nevin at first, Klesko in left, Crespo at second. We have a lot to build on." Former California All-America Xavier Nady, who is hitting .328 with eight HR in the Southern League, will also be tried at second.
Few general managers have done a better job slashing payroll while trying to build for the opening of the ballpark. Few general managers are more popular with their peers than Towers. "Smallest ego in baseball," says one AL general manager. "He hires strong people around him. He's honest to a fault."
As the Wells turns
As of Saturday morning, the Mets had not yet discussed names with the White Sox about David Wells, who after multiple incidents this past week has greased his skids out of Chicago.
"When we talked to Ken Williams on Monday, he wanted to wait, but I think he's changed his stance," says one GM. "He wants to move Wells, James Baldwin (13 BB, 6 K, not one three strikeout start), (Chris) Singleton and Herbert Perry as quickly as possible. But he wants a young positional player for Wells."
Here's another concern -- while Wells' curveball is still good, he's 38 years old, and he's 8-11, 4.80 with 10 quality starts in 26 outings since the 2000 All-Star break. He's got two herniated discs in his back. In addition, if a team doesn't pick up next year's option, there's a buyout that puts the four-month obligation at between $7 and $8 million.
The Astros have no interest -- not at Enron Field, not at the money. The Cardinals, Mets, Red Sox and a couple of other teams like the Phillies have made feelers.The Mets will not trade Alex Escobar; if the White Sox will take pitcher Pat Strange and a lesser prospect, maybe.
More Mets' moves?
The Mets, meanwhile, have tried talking to other clubs about John Vander Wal, Roger Cedeno and other bats. "What we have to figure out is where we are going to be in two weeks, and how well we're playing," says a Mets source.
The win Friday against Florida could be important (their first three-game winning streak), though the Marlins came back to win Saturday. There's no underestimating the importance of Al Leiter (the Mets were 6-3 after his return) and there are signs that Edgardo Alfonzo and Todd Zeile are starting to hit.
Now Mike Piazza has to get going (through May 25, he was 7 for his last 57).
More deals and steals There are a couple of clubs who have asked Williams about Paul Konerko, including the Mets, and others believe the White Sox will move Sandy Alomar.
"What's so frustrating about all this is that we are not this bad," says Williams. "I don't want to hear any excuse about how many players we've lost for the season (seven). But for those people who didn't think we'd really miss Frank Thomas -- even putting aside his production, the fact that we are dead last in on-base percentage tells you how much he rubs off on everyone else. We're not the same team without him. Now, the rest of the team should play better, but Frank is sorely missed."
The Twins still aren't certain on whether or not they will select USC RHP Mark Prior or St. Paul Cretin HS C Joe Mauer with the first pick in the draft on June 5. Indications are they will see if they can get Prior signed, and if they can't, take Mauer, who, like Cretin grad Chris Weinke, is signed to play quarterback at Florida State.
The Cubs, drafting second, will take whoever is there between Prior and Georgia Tech 3B Mark Teixeira -- preferably Prior. Tampa Bay will likely take Middle Tennessee RHP Dewon Brazelton, the Phillies are looking at high school RHP Gavin Floyd of Baltimore, leaving Texas with either Mauer or Teixeira, depending on Minnesota's choice.
Tampa, Kansas City and others are fascinated by South Carolina HS outfielder Roscoe Crosby, a big-time wide receiver signed with Clemson. Crosby has hired Eugene Parker -- Deion Sanders' agent -- to represent him.
Even though this is considered heavily a high school pitching draft, there are very good college positional players expected to go in the first round. OF John VanBenschoten of Kent is expected to go anywhere from sixth to 11th. Others among the high picks: Tennessee SS-2B Chris Burke; LSU 2B Mike Fontenot; Tulane 3B Jake Gautreau; Long Beach State SS Bobby Crosby; and Southern 2B Michael Woods
Houston HS RHP Josh Baker, Lance Berkman's brother-in-law, could go in the second or third round. Baker is the son of former Oiler Johnny Baker, and nephew of former Yankees and Orioles SS Frank Baker. His sister Cara married Berkman.
Then there's a newcomer into the scene named Jason Bulger, a 23-year old converted outfielder for Valdosta State with arm strength that could go into the third or fourth round. It seems his father moved south from Boston, prompting questions about any knowledge of the whereabouts of infamous crime boss Whitey Bulger.
Cuban defector and left-handed pitcher Rolando Vierra may be ready to begin working out for teams in two or three weeks. Vierra was a solid starter for Industriales and was considered one of the three best pitchers in Cuba, along with Jose Contreras and fireballing 20-year old Naels Rodriguez, who has consistently clocked in the 98-100 mph range.
While Dr. James Andrews raved about the success of the Kris Benson operation, the reality is that he won't be ready to resume his regular spot in the Pirates' rotation until 2003. Meanwhile, Jason Schmidt is a free agent at the end of the season and may have to be dealt by Pittsburgh before the trading deadline. Francisco Cordova and Omar Olivares are also free agents.
As much as the Yankees have looked at Montreal's Ugueth Urbina, they are concerned about his ability to pitch consecutive days, and they already have two setup men -- Ramiro Mendoza and Brian Boehringer -- about whom there are similar concerns.
The Yankees have considered looking for another hitter, but right now there is a chance that, should they are having trouble scoring runs a month from now, they may bring up Nick Johnson and give him some at-bats with Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill. Johnson has recently been sidelined with a wrist injury, but he can hit and is sitting on a .440 on-base percentage.
The Astros are worried enough about their rotation that they will discuss a deal involving right fielder Daryle Ward, but they want a veteran top-of-the-rotation starter, someone like Pedro Astacio, in return. If the Rockies thought Ward could play left field in Coors Lite, he could be a .340, 50-homer guy in that park. But the Rockies would likely have to get a Shane Reynolds in the deal.
A year ago, when Houston's Scott Elarton started horribly, he was threatened with being sent to New Orleans. He worked with his father on his mechanics and got straightened out. This year, 1-4 with a 7.28 ERA since mid-April, Elarton is again being threatened with a trip to the minors or to the bullpen, with Roy Oswalt, Tony McKnight or Octavio Dotel given a chance in the rotation.
One of the affects of the unbalanced schedule is that the more teams play one another, the more chance there is for a lingering feud. The Mets and Marlins got started in spring training after Mike Lowell hit two homers in one game, Mike Piazza got hit and then Lowell was drilled.
Thursday, the Phish let it be known that they didn't appreciate Shinjo swinging away on a 3-0 pitch with his team leading 11-3. Bobby Valentine has always allowed hitters to think they can always hit 3-0, with the philosophy that pitchers don't stop throwing curveballs up 10-0. Then when Brad Penny drilled Shinjo Friday and Zeile screamed at Penny on his trip around the bases after hitting a homer, it got a little testy. Turk Wendell, who loves these scrums, was clicking 92 mph on the radar gun when he came in after the benches emptied.
Out of curiosity, since right now Piazza is the only logical Met for the All-Star team, will Valentine consider adding Wendell, who's have his best season?. Also, Valentine invited Felipe Alou to be a coach for the All-Star Game, and was assured by Alou that Expos ownership told him he would still be managing at that time, so he could be counted on to be at the game.
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