It seems like this had been Kevin Towers’ plan all along. Go to the World Series, wait five years, get a new stadium, and jump right back into the playoff race. After five years without topping .500, Towers jumped in at the NL West’s weakest time, narrowly being defeated by the San Francisco Giants for a playoff spot.
The year is testament to Padre ownership, a group that has displayed a lot of trust in their employees in recent years. Few manager/GM combos have been in business longer than Towers and Bruce Bochy, despite .443 baseball in the last five seasons. They trusted Towers to put a winner on the field the year PETCO opened, and he did so. San Diego went out and acquired Brian Giles, Ramon Hernandez, Jay Payton, David Wells, and Akinori Ohtsuka in their chance at the NL West crown. And...it nearly worked.
Giles forced his way onto the spotlight, jumping right back above the .600SLG mark. Giles struggled a bit in right field, but seems to have learned as the season went on. Giles is the third-best left-handed bat in the division, more of a testament to the players in his division than criticism of Giles. Jason Bay has helped to lessen the blow for Dave Littlefield, but hey, Towers only had to give up Steve Reed to nab Bay from the Mets.
The rest of the offense was neither fantastic nor futile, with hitters neither surprising nor depressing Padre fans. Mark Loretta and Jay Payton both predictably dropped from their 2003 lines, but Klesko boosted back into form. Phil Nevin was injured for part of the season (again), but Xavier Nady is really starting to come around as a player. And while the Rey Ordonez expirament was laughable in April, Khalil Greene played well enough to take the two-spot from Loretta in the batting order. By year’s end, the Padres were looking at:
1. Burroughs- 3B
2. Greene- SS
3. Giles- RF
4. Nevin/Nady- 1B/LF
5. Klesko- LF/1B
6. Hernandez- C
7. Payton- CF
8. Loretta- C
The bench, while filled with veterans, was hardly fantastic. Tom Wilson and Brian Buchanon proved to be the “southpaw bashers” that their scouting reports read, but throwing Jeff Cirillo and Ramon Vazquez at right-handers did little to strike fear in enemies’ hearts.
Jake Peavy drew the majority of Padre hype before the season, as many people called for the right-hander to breakout. It was in fact Adam Eaton, the 26-year-old, that became the Padres best starter. Seldom noticed before the season, Eaton had the positive H/9 and K/9 indicators from the 2003 season. Two years removed from surgery, Eaton is not an injury concern anymore, his season was very similar to Kip Wells in 2003.
What held Peavy back from stardom were the home runs allowed. He had allowed thirty-three in 2003, including 24 away from what was then Qualcomm Stadium. The spacious dimensions in San Diego were diminished, and Peavy gave up 35 homers this season. At 23, Peavy looks to have a few All-Star games coming down the road, but he must keep the ball down more. Brian Lawrence was very consistent in 2004, eating a lot of innings with an ERA just below league average. It’s unlikely that Lawrence will return to his 2002 form ever again.
As for the veterans, not a lot can be said about Sterling Hitchcock. He won the job over Ismael Valdez in Spring Training, but did little other than contribute 170 innings of 4.50ERA. David Wells only got in twenty-five starts, but he was a very good influence on the team. He and Rod Beck have become fan favorites in San Diego, becoming well known for going out drinking with fans after games.
Beck wasn’t expected to get any saves this year, so his 15 when Trevor Hoffman was shelved for a month went well. He stumbled more than 2003, but the team had the reinforcements this year. Hoffman was off and on, but seemed to get better as the year went on. Otsuka only was able to pitch sixty innings, but allowed only 48 hits while striking out 63. He was much better than Chicago Japanese pitcher Shingo Takatsu, who saw his peripheral numbers exposed on the South Side. The team was also pleased by the bounce back performance from Antonio Osuna, and Scott Linebrink contributed positively in middle relief. Kevin Towers tired of left-hander Kevin Walker, so he called up Mexican southpaw Edgar Huerta from AAA. Rusty Tucker also did a nice job during September in the LOOGY role.
There were bits and pieces of this 2004 team that build a champion, but just simply not enough pieces of the puzzle. Ridding themselves of Mark Loretta and Phil Nevin is a good place to start, and Towers would be genius to land Jeff Kent to man second base. This lineup could really make noise in the NL West in 2005:
1. Sean Burroughs
2. Khalil Greene
3. Brian Giles
4. Jeff Kent
5. Ryan Klesko
6. Ramon Hernandez
7. Xavier Nady
8. Jay Payton
Kent would need to accept a move in 2006 though, as that looks to be the time Josh Barfield will hit the Majors. Barfield topped fifty extra base hits again, though his batting average was a shade under .300. The Padres were pleased to see him walk more, he’s definitely their top prospect again. 2006 will also be the season that Freddy Guzman takes over in the leadoff slot and in centerfield, following another very promising season. Guzman, a switch-hitting centerfielder, has an OBP of .380 and seventy stolen bases between AA and AAA. The team will trade Jay Payton if Guzman really breaks out.
You can’t talk prospects in San Diego without mentioning Jeff Niemann, the huge right-hander the team selected with the top overall choice. The rage over ‘hometown’ boy Jered Weaver and Niemann is still raging, and Rich Lederer can’t believe the Padres selection. But Niemann looks to be fantastic, a 6-9 pitcher that consistently throws in the high-90s. Yikes. It will be very important for this draft to work out, seeing as though Tim Stauffer appears to be the Dewon Brazelton of the 2004 draft. While Delmon Young, Rickie Weeks, Kyle Sleeth are all enjoying success, Stauffer struggled greatly in his first year. His mediocre offerings didn’t go well in the California League, as his ERA reached the low 4.00s.
The best Padre in the California League was the team’s third prospect, David Pauley. The short right-hander has a very good curveball, and improved the command that had plagued him in the past. With Barfield, Niemann, and Pauley, the Padres seem to have a good group for the future.
A good attendance season in PETCO, ownership will raise payroll again for 2005. The team is very pleased that Kent’s option was declined by Houston, and figure to be one of the larger suitors. If I were GM, I would sign Kent to a three-year deal, with a mutual understanding that the latter two years will be spent at first base. The team should then trade Klesko next winter, creating this very solid team in 2006:
C- Ramon Hernandez
1B- Jeff Kent
2B- Josh Barfield
SS- Khalil Greene
3B- Sean Burroughs
LF- Xavier Nady
CF- Freddy Guzman
RF- Brian Giles
Good times are ahead for San Diego. Towers and Bochy just might be able to keep their jobs another ten years...