Kevin Towers completed his ninth season as General Manager of the San Diego Padres this year. Since advancing to the World Series in 1998, the Padres have traded or let go of several big names, while investing in the draft and farm system as part of the rebuilding process. The Padres now look ahead to a higher revenue stream with the opening of Petco Park for Opening Day 2004. Towers recently chatted with BP about the future of the team, the new ballpark, and the Brian Giles trade.
Baseball Prospectus: How will Petco Park play?
Kevin Towers: I hope it’s a pitcher’s park. We studied clubs going into new parks over the last few years, and we found that a few clubs, Seattle and San Francisco especially, had some success in pitcher’s parks. There are factors we won’t know for sure until we get in there of course. The wind direction we won’t know for example. It will be tough to hit homers to the gaps, and will probably favor left-handed pull hitters: It’s 410 feet to the right-center field gap, with a short porch in right field at 325, plus 395 to center, 385 to the gap in left-center. It’s 330 down the line in left, with a building–the old Western Metals building–in play there. The two corner outfielders will probably have to be pretty good athletes, considering how big the gaps are, plus there are quirky spots in the corners. There’s only about six to eight feet of foul territory in spots, so if you’re in a dead sprint toward the line you’ll have a hard time stopping before you crash into wall. The lack of foul territory favors the hitter obviously and should help balance the scales a bit.
BP: Has the new park influenced some of the personnel moves you’ve made this season, in particular acquiring Brian Giles?
Towers: I mentioned that the park is going to favor left-handed hitters. I’m a big believer that you can never have enough left-handed hitters or left-handed pitchers. Players with pull power should get the biggest advantage out of the new park; somebody like Kotsay with gap power may struggle a bit more. But Giles and Klesko, it should favor them because they have pull-type power. I’m a little concerned with moving Klesko to a corner spot though because of how difficult we expect it to be to play outfield defense in left and right. What we’d like to do is get into the park in December, see which outfield position is more difficult, put Giles in that corner, Klesko in the other.
Overall I think we’ve improved our outfield defense with Kotsay and Giles out there, but with Klesko, left field or right will be tough–it’ll be a struggle for him defensively. An option would be to trade someone like Klesko, but we don’t want to give up that offense from our lineup. With Giles-Kotsay-Greene-Burroughs we’re a much-improved ballclub (defensively). With Loretta-Nevin-Klesko we’re below-average there, so hopefully our pitchers will try to prevent opposing hitters from pushing the ball to the right side.
BP: We started discussing the Giles trade…how did you get out of having to take on Kendall’s six-year, $60 million contract as part of the deal?
Towers: We were trying to separate the two from the beginning–we felt that Giles was the key player for us. We had some interest in Kendall, but not at that price obviously. When I first talked to Pittsburgh I thought it’d be very difficult to separate the two, that Giles was a chip for them to unload Kendall’s contract. We went down to the trade deadline, and I said maybe we’d talk about Kendall in the off-season. I felt there was a way to get Kendall in the wintertime, so that we wouldn’t have to take on the rest of his 2003 salary when we weren’t going to win anyway in the 2003 season. The key bat that we wanted was Giles; he brings a power bat, on-base percentage, defense–he’s a guy who’s been on our radar screen for the last year or two. We’re excited to get him, he’s a very underrated player. All you have to do is look at Nevin’s numbers the last two months with Giles in front of him to see the impact he can have on the club.
We could have done the deal with the same players that were involved on our end with substantial cash also involved if we got both Giles and Kendall. But I made it clear I didn’t want to talk about Kendall until winter time. I knew they wouldn’t be able to get waivers on Giles because I’d claim him–we had the worst record so we had the first waiver priority–and I knew they wanted to move salary. From the Pirates’ standpoint there was the risk of Giles maybe getting injured or something, in which case they’d be stuck with both players and their contracts, and ownership wouldn’t want to take that risk and wanted to move salaries as soon as possible. I felt I was in a good position. We dragged it out until the deadline, and then once Giles went on waivers I knew I was in a good position, being able to claim him.
BP: When you looked into trading for Giles, you were talking about a player already 32 years old, with multiple years left on his contract. What types of studies or research did you look into in terms of players with similar profiles aging well?
Towers: The beauty of the contract is that it just takes him until he’s 34. Age 32 in our research is when players start to drop off. But for the remaining two years of his contract, we felt the protection we could put around him, with him coming home and feeling comfortable, he had a chance to put up comparable or better numbers for a few more years.
BP: Over the last couple of years you’ve had some setbacks with some of the organizations’ pitchers, with injuries and ineffectiveness. In the Giles trade you gave up one of your best pitching prospects, Oliver Perez. Is there a concerted effort being made to shift the way you’re building the team from focusing on pitchers–especially young pitchers–to building with hitters?
Towers: Once Adam Eaton was injured, I realized that while pitching was our strength, they were still very young. With young pitchers, it’s often two, three, four years before they meet their max potential. Realistically it would be tough for Eaton, Peavy, Perez, and Lawrence to make us a playoff club without a strong offense. Looking at the division over the next year, year and a half, we’re looking to acquire a veteran guy or two to bookend the young pitchers, to improve the offense, and use some dollars to improve the bullpen. Pitchers who are 21, 22, 23 years old, you can’t expect them to pitch to the ninth inning. So we figure if we get enough bangers for the offense, have our young starters go five or six innings, we can address the bullpen to help us win. I plan on really building up this bullpen. We’ll get Hoffman back, use Linebrink and Witasick for the sixth inning, then we’d look to add guys for the seventh and eighth, hoping we can slam the door shut.
Our philosophy was really to improve the offense a great deal. We’d then look into getting someone like a Wells, Hitchcock, or Finley as a lefty fifth-starter type–we’d like to have three lefties in bullpen and two in the rotation. We’ve seen lefties with marginal stuff have good success with all the great lefty hitters in this division. When you look at Gonzo, Bonds, Helton, Walker, Green, the unbalanced schedule, we feel the season’s going to be made in April and September when we play those teams in our division. We’d like to put together a dominant, Dodger-type bullpen for next season.
BP: You talk about improving the bullpen and spending dollars, but then of course you could take a lesson from a pitcher like Rod Beck, who cost next to nothing and was dominant for you. Is it absolutely a must to spend big bucks to upgrade the bullpen?
Towers: I’ve definitely changed my philosophy on pitchers. When I was an amateur scout, it was all about the radar gun. Now, I see that the guys that have success, they’re strike throwers–you can throw away the JUGS gun. In this job, you have to continually change. If you stay one way, you become a dinosaur–you’ll die.
Changing speeds is what Beck does so well, and it’s what Hoffman does. Give me six or seven guys with good strikeout-to-walk ratios any day. In 1996, we had the best bullpen in National League; the pitchers we had threw strikes, didn’t walk leadoff hitters, and kept us out of jams.
As far as spending money on the bullpen, when you’re a club in a small- or mid-size market, the ballclub can turn over by 50% every year. You have to work to your strengths. In our case, it’s a hell of a lot easier to address the bullpen than to go get a top starting pitcher. You can put together one of the best bullpens in the league for the price of one starter.
BP: You’ve got the young pitchers to work into the mix, but you’re going with some young position players as starters too. Looking at someone like Khalil Greene, his numbers from any given level don’t necessarily jump out at you. What is it that you like about him that makes you confident he can do the job starting at short as soon as next season?
Towers: His defense is his biggest plus right now. We’ve had some problems with players with horrible range factors. Khalil will be our number-eight hitter next year; he’ll eventually hit, but he may not fulfill his full potential with the bat for a couple of years. What he can do with the glove already though–he’s got tremendous range to his left, to his right, he can turn the double play. Khalil can be a .220-.230 guy for now, maybe hit up to 10 homers, and improve as he goes. I see Ramon Vazquez more as a very good utility player. Vazquez lacks range, and he doesn’t have power.
BP: With shortstop set and the other positions locked up, catcher would seem to be the one area where you’d need to fill a hole. How do you plan to address the catcher spot? We’ve heard mention of Brad Ausmus and Benito Santiago as possibilities, but Ausmus can’t hit and Santiago’s too old to be a long-term answer. Are you really looking in that direction?
Towers: Ausmus and Santiago are more fallback guys–I’d rate them Santiago, then Ausmus in order of preference. But we also have to keep in mind that we only have a certain amount of dollars to work with. So we need to ask whether we’ll direct dollars to the catching position or to pitching. I do have a couple of potential trades up my sleeve that I can’t mention right now. That’s kind of the way I’m leaning right now, to look at making a trade for a catcher.
BP: Well, you brought it up, you have to at least give us a hint…
Towers: I’ll say that we’re looking at two or three guys on other clubs, two AL guys, one NL guy. All three play for three of the eight playoff clubs.
BP: Why did you give up so fast on Mike Rivera? He’d shown some pretty good power numbers in the minors and looked like a good snag when you picked him up.
Towers: Rivera has exceptional power for a catcher. Ultimately we just didn’t give him much of a chance. We do have a kid similar to him in Miguel Ojeda. But even with Ojeda–when you’re losing as many games as we were, you have to feel a little for the manager. We had a young pitching staff, and Bruce (Bochy) felt that the pitchers were more comfortable with Bennett, so he played him a lot. Sometimes as a GM that’s where you struggle, trying to make sure the best decisions are made for the team, for the future of the team. Bruce and I get into it sometimes. There’ll be a left-hander on mound, and he’ll play Buchanan, and I’ll be pushing him to play Nady. Young players need innings and at-bats, it’s the only way they’re going to improve. Of course he’s on a one-year contract, and I’m on a five-year deal, so it’s natural that we’re going to look at things differently.
Part II tomorrow…