July 22, 2002
Rebuilding Gone Awry
The Padres' Re-revamped InfieldThe San Diego Padres were the consensus sleeper pick of 2002, considered by many to be a team on the fast track, maybe even on pace to pattern the recent success of the Oakland A's. General Manager Kevin Towers and manager Bruce Bochy talked about the importance of plate discipline, of finding pitchers who throw strikes, and of improving the defense.
The Padres came into the season having made numerous changes, ones almost universally thought to have improved the team They brought in promising shortstop prospect Ramon Vazquez and pitcher Brett Tomko from the Mariners in exchange for catcher Ben Davis. Brian Lawrence, a right-hander who slipped through almost every prospect list, was given a spot in the rotation. They dipped into the free-talent well for bullpen help, getting a great set-up tandem in Steve Reed and Alan Embree. Even more promising, the team improved its defense by moving valuable and affordable components Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin to right field and first base, respectively, creating room at third base for 21-year-old phenom Sean Burroughs.
The Padres system was stocked, in large part because the organization had shown a willingness to take on talent other clubs had deemed a tough sign. Xavier Nady, a client of Scott Boras, was widely considered the best hitter in the 2000 draft. He dropped to the second round because of bonus demands. The Padres, in an almost unthinkable change of organizational philosophy, drafted and signed Nady.
Towers has done a remarkable job in adding talent to an organization that previously did not know where talent could be found. He has taken cues from the A's Billy Beane, but he has also continued to utilize his impressive scouting background. He stole previously unheralded Dennis Tankersley from the Red Sox. And he might have done it again with the recent acquisition of Brad Baker for Embree, the free-talent reliever.
That is the setup, if you will. Only the punch line has landed about as poorly as a Bud Selig-spun zinger. A series of managerial/organizational directives, starting with the decision to sign Deivi Cruz, has led this team to a sort of crossroads.
The decision to sign Cruz as an insurance policy at shortstop backfired immediately. Bochy decided, almost on a whim, to replace Ramon Vazquez with Cruz. While Cruz was at one time a plus defender, his range and hands have slipped to the point where he is now among the worst glove men in the game. His offense has been mediocre: a .250/.288/.348 line, while batting as high as third in the lineup. There is light at the end of the tunnel, as Bruce Bochy considers Vazquez his shortstop for 2003.
Even more hazardous is the fallout that occurred on the rest of the Padres infield. D'Angelo Jimenez, who was coming off of a solid rookie campaign as the Padres shortstop and who opened this season at second base, slumped early. After spending some time covering third base, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for two minor leaguers of little consequence. Jimenez was a disappointment at the plate, hitting .240/.311/.327 with just four stolen bases. He struggled defensively as well, causing the Padres to sour on him.
Third base, of course, was supposed to be Burroughs' position. It was for a while; Burroughs hit .299 in April, then a right shoulder problem ruined his swing. He struggled through May, hitting .111/.186/.130 before the Padres finally put him on the DL. He's now playing second base at Triple-A. The current plan is for him to return to the Padres in mid-August and take over the second-base job.
Meanwhile, Nevin has returned to third base and has plans to stay there for a while. Klesko, one of the worst defensive first basemen in the game, has again nestled into his old role on the other side of the diamond. Both veterans have expressed displeasure with how the management has handled this season, and both appear determined to exert influence over the lineup card and roster going forward.
The aforementioned Vazquez has been bumped all over the place, spending time at three infield positions. His bat has come on a bit (.256/.329/.315 for the season, .324 with better power and strike-zone judgment in June and July) and he seems to have found a spot in Bochy's lineup at second base against right-handers. Towers claims he will see more time at shortstop in the second half.
This is crisis management at its worst. A team on the verge of contending came into the season with a plan. Early injuries to several key players likely ended any realistic chance the Padres had at competing for the NL West title. Now, the organization appears to be in full panic mode. The decision to move Burroughs to second base (and subsequently keep Nevin at third base and Klesko at first base) seems shortsighted in the least. At worst it could slow, or possibly even limit, Burroughs' offensive development.
Bochy has long been known as a players' manager. What that means, exactly, is a closely guarded secret, but we can assume it means that a manager is loyal to his players. Bochy has been just that. His tendency to play favorites has hurt the Padres throughout this season and in the past. Unchecked, it will continue to hurt the team in the future.
Chris Dankberg is currently pursuing a career in broadcasting. He can be reached at email@example.com.