EARLY IN themorning of Feb. 12, as Heath Bell drove from his home in Port St. Lucie, Fla.,to the Padres' spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., a pothole onInterstate 10 interrupted his trip. With air seeping from one of the tires,Bell guided his new Nissan Altima off the freeway and into the town of FortStockton, Texas, about 300 miles west of San Antonio.
Bell found amechanic to replace the busted tire, and as the guy examined the car, hepointed to a Padres' duffel bag in the backseat. "Ken Caminiti stopped herewith a flat tire once," the mechanic said. "He won the MVP for you guysthat year."
Of course, Caminitihad other secrets when he was voted National League MVP in 1996. But as Bellpulled out of the garage and back onto I-10, he couldn't help but hit the gas alittle harder. "I know I'm not going to win the MVP," the 30-year-oldrighthander says, "but it made me think, This might be a pretty good yearafter all."
Pitching for SanDiego requires a lot of positive thinking, partly to make up for the lack ofrun support. Last season the Padres had the best ERA in the majors and thethird-worst batting average and on-base percentage. Improbably enough, after awinter in which they improved their rotation but not necessarily their lineup,that gap could widen. "I'd be lying if I told you I don't get frustratedsometimes," says ace Jake Peavy, who nonetheless signed a very reasonablethree-year, $52 million extension in the off-season. "But we have guys whoare able to win games 1--0 just as easily as they win games 7--5."
Everyone can agreethat pitching prevails, but no team takes the axiom as literally as the Padres.Their manager, Bud Black, was a pitching coach. Their stadium, Petco Park, is apitching paradise. Their rotation includes a reigning NL Cy Young winner(Peavy), a 2007 All-Star (Chris Young) and future Hall of Famer (Greg Maddux).Their most significant free-agent acquisition, Randy Wolf, is the No. 4starter.
San Diego appears alot more serious about building its staff than its outfield. The club startedlast season with Terrmel Sledge and Jose Cruz Jr. sharing leftfield. They planto start this season with Scott Hairston, Chase Headley and Jody Gerut takingturns there. There is more certainty about who will play center and right, buthow Jim Edmonds and Brian Giles, both 37, will perform is another question.Edmonds (shoulder) and Giles (knee) have each undergone surgery in the past 18months and have seen steady declines in their production over the last fourseasons. "Fortunately," says catcher Josh Bard, "our pitchers giveus a lot of leeway. I wish it wasn't this way, but we put them in a lot oftight games, a lot of high-pressure situations. I think that's part of whatmakes them great. They are used to always being locked in. Every game is likethe playoffs."
The Padres' habitof living on the edge, however, finally caught up with them last season. Afterhaving the majors' highest winning percentage in one-run games in 2005 and '06(.584), San Diego slipped to 23--26 (.469) in '07. And now the club is indanger of seeing the rest of the division pass it by. The Diamondbacks, Dodgersand Rockies all have more money and better prospects in their farm system.
Still, despite arecent history of subpar drafts, general manager Kevin Towers has been cleverin the trade market, having acquired his best hitter (first baseman AdrianGonzalez) and second-best pitcher (Young) in 2006 for a declining starter (AdamEaton) and a setup man (Akinori Otsuka). And Bell came from the Mets inNovember '06 in a swap of spare parts. Last season he had a 2.02 ERA (thelowest of any pitcher with more than 90 innings), struck out more than onebatter per inning and held opponents to a .185 average.
Bell would be wisenot to read too much into his meeting with the Fort Stockton mechanic, but he'sthe kind of pitcher who keeps the Padres' wheels turning.
a modest proposal...
Thirty-seven, 402and 411. The first number is Jim Edmonds's age, the second and third arepainted on the left centerfield and right center fences at Petco Park. Thatcombination means that this number—3.70, the Padres' major-league-best ERA in'07—is certain to go up. The club's decision not to re-sign centerfielder MikeCameron and pick up Edmonds (left) on the cheap from the Cards will have adeleterious effect on a staff laden with flyball pitchers who relied onCameron's range to keep runs off the board. Edmonds doesn't have the legs tocover the same ground, and he's already been sidelined by a sprained calfmuscle this spring. San Diego had no other true centerfielder in camp, so KevinTowers was looking outside the organization for a solution. The Padres cannotcontend with a broken-down Edmonds playing center in their ballpark.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER BUD BLACKSECOND SEASON WITH SAN DIEGO
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
*Double A stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
ERA last season ofNL Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy. Petco Park has a deserved reputation as apitchers' haven—the Padres' staff had a 3.02 ERA at home, 4.42 on the road—butPeavy was dominant in all ballparks. He held opponents to a .195 average on theroad, 23 points lower than their average against him in San Diego, and his roadERA (2.57) was also only six points higher than his home figure.
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JULY 28, 1997
FIFTEEN YEARS ago he whacked two hits against thePhiladelphia Phillies. The first was a double that brought the first basemantrailing the play close enough to talk to him at second base. "Hey, kid,what are you trying to do, catch me in one night?" Pete Rose asked TonyGwynn. The best hitter since Ted Williams smiles 2,705 hits later. "Man, itseems like yesterday," he says. "The years, they've flown by."
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POP STARS After Khalil Greene (left) and Adrian Gonzalez, who combined for 57 homers last year, there's little power in the lineup.
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