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June 21, 2004

Prospectus Today

Petco Party

by Joe Sheehan

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"It's pretty."

So says Sophia about Petco Park, which we both visited for the first time on Saturday night. The park is located in downtown San Diego, and very much a part of the area. In fact, before the game we traipsed over to Seaport Village and walked around, and the post-game options for attendees make it possible to make a night out of a day at the ballpark.

The most significant impression the park made on me was the size of the outfield. Seeing it on television just doesn't do it justice. If Petco Park doesn't have the most actual acreage between the infield and the fences--I guess the really deep center field in some parks could give them more square footage--the 400-foot distances to left-center and right-center fields make the outfield look vast, almost as if a fourth outfielder would be needed to cover the ground.

The way in which Petco's huge outfield affects the game was a big topic of conversation on Saturday. Padres GM Kevin Towers, addressing an audience of nearly 100 BP readers before the game, referenced the park's dimensions and their effects on game play and team construction frequently in an hour-long session. Towers was enthusiastic, forthright and informative, exactly what you'd hope for from a speaker. His turn at the mike made the Ballpark Feed a success.

Once the game began, however, another Towers took center stage. Blue Jays starter Josh Towers, who entered the game coming off his season-worst outing and at risk of losing his rotation spot. I wouldn't be surprised if Towers stayed behind when the Jays flew out of California last night; if there's a park in which he could make a lot of money, it's this one, with its huge outfield and benign winds. Towers was excellent, tossing just 78 pitches--59 strikes--in seven innings, with just a poor play by a displaced infielder separating him from a shutout.

That infielder, Dave Berg, figured in all three of the Padres' runs in their 3-2 win. Playing left field because nearly every other outfielder in the Jays' system has been injured, Berg couldn't get to a Jay Payton fly ball in the fourth inning, allowing it to bounce on the warning track and over the fence for a rule-book double that plated the Pads' first tally. In addition to not being able to play left field, Berg can't play shortstop and he's hitting .222 with no extra-base hits and three walks this season. His two-year contract--granted before the '03 season--was a mistake, and he really should be released.

I question the decision to take Towers out after seven innings. He'd shown little fatigue to that point and he'd gone 98 pitches in a strong seven-inning stint two starts prior against the A's. Carlos Tosca has struggled to find the right reliever for the right situation all season long, and in this case, he once again eschewed left-hander Jason Kershner in favor of a right-hander with two lefties due up in the inning. If Kershner isn't going to be used to face Sean Burroughs and Brian Giles, then why is he on the roster? Justin Speier, a righty with a history of getting lefties out, came in instead.

Tosca might have gotten away with it, if not for another Berg misplay. This is worth pointing out: The Jays don't even have a defensive replacement for Berg, who looks as awkward in the outfield as any player under 220 pounds can. Sean Burroughs opened the eighth by lifting a fly ball down the left field line, and Berg was unable to get to the ball, playing it into a double. Burroughs advance to third with some nifty baserunning on a ground ball to Eric Hinske, and Giles came through with a single to tie the game. Two batters later, Ryan Klesko doubled to right field, and while Giles should have been thrown out, Gregg Zaun mishandled Orlando Hudson's relay, and the Padres had their winning run.

Awful left field play contributed to all five runs in the game, as the Jays got their two when Klesko allowed a fifth-inning Chris Woodward fly ball to become an RBI triple, with Woodward scoring on Berg's single. Give these teams real left fielders, and they might still be playing Saturday's game.

Klesko presents a real problem for the Padres. In the early days of his career, he was a better left fielder than he appeared to be, consistently rated by advanced metrics as average or just below while with the Braves. He was a terrible first baseman for the Padres, unable to handle any throw that didn't come in chest-high, and the emergence of Sean Burroughs forced the Padres to put him or Phil Nevin in left field. They chose Klesko.

It's not working. He's lost all his speed, and he doesn't read balls well. If he was hitting at his 1999-2001 levels, it wouldn't be that big a problem, but Klesko has been a cipher at the plate for nearly a year now, following up a terrible finish to '03 with an injury-riddled, power-starved '04. His displeasure with the new park is well-known, but I've seen Andy Fox pull one into the seats, and it's a great doubles park, so Klesko's complaints are no excuse for his performance.

The Padres are a fiercely loyal organization, and Bruce Bochy has shown tremendous patience with his veteran players over the years. The Padres are my choice to acquire Carlos Beltran, as much because they need to upgrade their outfield defense as for what he brings at the plate. If not Beltran, then perhaps they can acquire Steve Finley via trade or go after one of the center fielders they missed signing this winter, Mike Cameron or Kenny Lofton.

What they can't do is keep playing two left fielders and a DH, not when the DH is hitting like a second baseman. The park punishes a team that can't go get the ball, and that's what the Padres have right now. If changing that means reducing Klesko to a part-time player, they'll have to do it. They're too close to a division title to let sentiment interfere with winning.

Some notes from a great night at the park:

  • One of the things that really came through in Kevin Towers' time with our group was how much he lives and dies with this team. We forget that almost all front-office people--even in the Moneyball era--were athletes, competitors. They can't play the games themselves anymore, but they'll watch them with the same passion. Their love of the game remains very much intact.

    If I write a lousy column it's on me, and I try and do it better the next day. If the Padres lose, though--and they'd lost six in a row going into Saturday night--Towers can't play left field or bat sixth. He just suffers.

    I have no emotional attachment to the Padres, and I thought it was great to see. For a fan of the team, and we had a bunch in attendance, it has to be nice to see that your GM gets as into the game as you do.

  • The Devil Rays--I'll get to them Tuesday--swept the Padres here last week. The contrast between the Padres' plodding outfield and the Devil Rays' athletic one was noticed by a number of people associated with the team. The Devil Rays basically play three center fielders, and it wouldn't be ridiculous if they swept the Gold Glove voting this year. Look for the Pads' outfield to look more like the D-Rays' next season.

  • This was the 33rd game in the new park, played on a pleasant Saturday night in June. (It was even an interleague game!) So I was more than a little surprised to see entire sections in the second tier empty, and more than a few vacant seats in the upper deck. If the new-park honeymoon is getting shorter and shorter, then the Padres barely made it back from the beach before trouble began.

    Despite its small-market cachet--and with no tertiary markets to speak of, it's one of the few teams that can make the label stick--San Diego is a good baseball town. Even in the down years, the parking lots around Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium saw a good number of tailgaters, and the Pads could almost always count on big Saturday-night crowds, albeit ones driven by promotions and fireworks. At Petco, the Padres have stripped down the promotion calendar a bit while ratcheting up ticket prices; they may have overshot the mark, judging from the crowd I saw.

    Unless this team continues to play well, and I mean winning-the-division well, they are going to have a tough time filling the park with the walkup attendees who can make the difference between black ink and red. The $45 price tag on loge outfield seats is going to keep more people away than it brings in.

  • Maybe the fans just miss the food. About the only complaint I had is that I don't think the new park had quite the selection or quality of food that the Q did. The food at Padres' games in recent years was by far the best of any Southland team.

    OK, I'm a little bitter because I didn't see the Randy Jones BBQ stand--beyond center field, actually outside the main stadium structure--until I was in my seat.

  • I wish I'd had more chance to talk to the many BP readers who were at the pre-game gathering and scattered throughout sections 233 and 235. Thanks to everyone who showed up, and made the event such a success, and a special nod to Jonah Keri and his wife Angele, who did all the heavy lifting to make it happen.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Outfield,  Left Field,  Petco Park,  The Who,  Padres,  AT&T Park,  Sean Burroughs

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