Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday's notes

* In their first season together, Padres CEO Jeff Moorad and General Manager Kevin Towers are off to a promising start, although the Padres still might finish last for the second year in a row.

* Moorad is talking like he'll retain Towers, who has the longest tenure among active GMs. Towers, described by A's GM Billy Beane as unusually likeable, could teach a business seminar on how to survive in corporate cultures. In his 14 years as GM, Towers has reported to no fewer than seven different bosses, including club chairman John Moores and several CEOs of vastly different personalities and backgrounds, such as Larry Lucchino, Bob Vizas, Dick Freeman and Sandy Alderson. Along the way, Towers has shown a willingness to replace Padres staffers at several levels. More so than many GMs, he's a presence in the clubhouse, and with both the local and national media.

* Moorad likes how Towers and Padres scouts overhauled the bullpen in spring training. The trade in May for Tony Gwynn Jr. is already a winner on several levels, including the $1 million saved on Jody Gerut's salary. As for the Jake Peavy trade, even Peavy's agent, Barry Axelrod, said he was shocked that the Padres were able to deal Peavy this summer, because the ace was on the disabled list and due about $56 million. The Padres, who basically paid Peavy $1.5 million to OK the trade, were looking to invest more than $10 million in their farm system when they brokered the Peavy deal, which also brought four pitchers from the White Sox. The Scott Hairston trade opened up playing time for Kyle Blanks, who, like Hairston, has home run power that plays in Petco Park. Because he's eligible for abitration, Hairston could command nearly $4 million in salary next season, while Blanks and Chase Headley will each get about $400,000. The three pitchers acquired for Hairston get to work in Petco Park, which has benefited several other pitchers obtained by the Padres in recent years. Beane also showed interest in Hairston when the outfielder and Moorad were with the Diamondbacks.

* Here's Moorad's response when asked about his plans for Towers, whose contract runs through 2010: "Kevin is certainly one of the more respected GMs of the game. I saw his involvement here in San Diego as being a positive from the moment we first looked at the franchise. That having been said, Kevin as well as everyone in the organization knows that 2009 was going to be a season of evaluation. I would say that evaluation is continuing. Kevin has been great to work with and has lived up to expectations as it relates to improving the roster in real time."

* Moorad said Towers has final say-so on the baseball operations staff going forward -- another sign that the GM's standing is strong. Moorad added: "I think we have a number of people on the 'baseball ops' side that have excelled over time, and 2009 was no exception."

* The Padres aren't likely to make any changes to Petco Park in 2010, but they've discussed eventually replacing the out-of-town scoreboard that fronts the right-field wall. Among the discussed options include an old-time scoreboard, where the numbers are changed by hand.

* Moorad and his club president, Tom Garfinkel, plan to increase revenues in several ways, including the obvious one of improving the team. One move that worked for them with the Diamondbacks was to "declutter" corporate signage, a less-is-more approach that brought a cleaner look and more money.

* Moorad reiterated that future Padres major league payrolls will be linked strongly to club revenues, but he softened the impression that season-ticket sales will set the payroll levels.

* I asked Moorad why fans should put money into the club until the new regime puts a better team on the field. "The onus isn't on the fans, to be sure," he said. "The onus is on us to generate the amount of revenue required to responsibly run the franchise, and we look at that as our responsibility. Our goal is to continue driving revenue on all sides of the organization, so that we will be able to invest more liberally on the player payroll side of the business, whether it be ticket sales or sponsorship or other new and creative means of garnering revenue. That's exactly what we did in Arizona for four straight years. I'm confident that the market is there."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Distance perception

"We're not as far away as people think we are."

Get used to hearing those words from the Padres.

I heard them last week from both General Manager Kevin Towers and second-baseman David Eckstein.

Eckstein admitted that only two months ago, he was skeptical, even troubled, about where the Padres were headed.

Why the surge of optimism?

Eckstein, speaking last week from the team's clubhouse, pointed to the lockers of two rookie pitchers, Mat Latos and Clayton Richard.

"When K.T. brought in those kind of young arms, it gets you excited," he said.

Eckstein then mentioned his infield partner, rookie shortstop Everth Cabrera.

"Great athlete," Eckstein said, confirming what's pretty easy to see. "The thing is, you only have to tell him something once. We're still working on his 'clock.' Sometimes he doesn't account for things with his timing. Like in Cincinnati, he was playing too far back on Willy Taveras. I talked to him, and he made the adjustment. Next time, he was right where he was supposed to be.

"The other thing about him is, he's going to get bigger and stronger."

Eckstein likes the athleticism and upside of Will Venable and Kyle Blanks.

He praised center-fielder Tony Gwynn Jr.'s approach to hitting. "He's consistent."

If Gwynn hits enough, his intangibles will become another asset. "He can be a leader," Eckstein said. "He's smart."

Eckstein also considers Petco Park an advantage for the Padres. "It seems like it neutralizes visiting clubs," he said.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Poojie

Among active ballplayers, Albert Pujols is my favorite. A big part of it is he means so much to my mother-in-law. She's a decadeslong Cardinals fan. Lives in St. Louis. Her health isn't good. No need for details, but one day in her life, I am certain, would have me begging for relief.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Draft, Moorad

Quick and not-so-quick hits from the recent Padres draft:

* New CEO and minority owner Jeff Moorad has brought an extra dimension to the draft.

* The best amateur players advised by Scott Boras no longer are off limits, a change from how the Padres usually did business under majority owner John Moores.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Upbeat day for Padres

Lots of encouraging developments for the Padres today.

I'll have more later on the team's fruitful negotiations with its top draft picks. The moves reflect well on new CEO Jeff Moorad on several levels, starting with his decision last spring to empower Padres scouts, who believed in prep stars such as Donavan Tate, Everett Williams and Keyvius Sampson but knew each was going to cost more money than the Padres usually pay at those draft slots.

Put it this way, Padres hardcore fans should plan on going to Peoria, Ariz, later this summer to see Tate, Williams and Sampson. The Padres considered each of them a first-round talent.

Hat's off to Padres area scout Tim Holt, who was convinced that the club should draft Williams, a hitter who some rate above Tate. I know of three American League clubs that graded Williams as a first-round talent but had concerns about signing him. Sampson, meantime, has been clocked up to 96 miles-per-hour.

The Padres should allow fans into Petco Park earlier this week, so they can watch these guys hit. I'm hearing Tate will take batting practice with the Padres on Tuesday, followed by Williams on Wednesday. Both outfielders were graded as highly athletic.

Here's some more good news, from Padres pitcher Chris Young, who had arthroscopic surgery to resolve a shoulder impingement.

"Surgery went very well. They found the problem and fixed it without having to repair anything structurally. I was relieved to know that: a) it was a problem that would not have gone away with rest; and b) that it was a minor fix which should allow me to make a full recovery."

Young's friend Randy Wolf, coming off a similar procedure, is giving the Dodgers a strong season. If Young can regain his typical fastball -- 88-90 miles-per-hour -- he should be fine because he has so much deception, especially when working high in the strikezone. Look at what Phillies rookie J.A. Happ -- a pitcher who interested the Padres last offseason -- is doing with medium-speed fastballs, often thrown beween the belt and neck. Many hitters struggle against deceptive, high fastballs, even those clocked under 92 mph.

The Padres will need to go slowly with Young. Even when he was healthy, he usually needed until late May or June to fully build up.

Young's return should help Mat Latos, who hasn't seen Young prepare for a game that counts. No one is more focused on game day.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Eckstein talks Cardinals

Ever wonder how the Cardinals coach up so many pitchers?

A big part of it is their unmatched emphasis on exploiting a hitter's weaknesses, said Padres second-baseman David Eckstein, who played for St. Louis from 2005-07.

"The Cardinals attack hitters in a different way from every other club," Eckstein told me in March. "They pitch to the hitter's weaknesses more than anybody does. A lot of clubs tell their pitchers to pitch to their own strengths. Not the Cardinals. They figure out what a hitter's weakness is. And they keep attacking it."

Eckstein cited the success of pitcher Jeff Weaver in 2006, notably in the postseason. Take Weaver's dismissal of the Padres in the divisional playoffs.

"His approach that game was all about going after the weaknesses of Padres hitters," Eckstein said.

Weaver was having a bad year for the Angels. The Cardinals made him another reclamation project for pitching coach Dave Duncan, an alum of San Diego's Crawford High. Weaver's five scoreless innings and victory over the Padres in Game 2 put St. Louis in control of the divisionals.

Of course, all 30 clubs try to exploit the weaknesses of hitters. The Cardinals scout it and teach it better, Eckstein said, and emphasize it more than anyone else. For example, a Cardinals pitcher might use his second- or third-best pitch, over and over, if it corresponds to a hitter's acute weakness.

That's why it's educational to watch how the Cardinals pitch the Padres, who are in St. Louis this weekend.

I often am impressed by the Cardinals' attention to detail. It showed up in all three of their playoff-series victories over the Padres. A quick example: Fairly often during the 1996 season, Padres spray hitter Jody Reed landed singles to shallow right field. The Cardinals, realizing that Reed almost never hit a ball to deep right, had Brian Jordan play in against Reed during the playoffs. Sure enough, Jordan made a pivotal catch that denied Reed a shallow single.

Eckstein said Tony La Russa's teams tend to show more alertness and energy than many teams do. Albert Pujols is a big part of it, Eckstein said, because Pujols is a team-oriented superstar with great fundamentals. His smart. bold baserunning, for example, further prods all Cardinals players to excel on the basepaths, Eckstein said.

La Russa's fire is another strength.

"Tony's big thing is to have an edge to you," said Eckstein, the MVP of the 2006 World Series. "He wanted us to play angry. We'd figure out a way to play angry."

UPDATE

The next time Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina picks a Padre off first base, Padres broadcasters Ted Leitner and Andy Masur should cue up David Byrne and the Talking Heads.

Same as it ever was...same as it ever was.

Molina and first baseman Albert Pujols are really good at the pickoff play. Padres first-base coach Rick Renteria is good at what he does, too.

I guess some lessons have to be learned the hard way, such as when Padres second-year player Will Venable was picked off by Molina, blunting a late rally on Saturday.

At some point, however, you'd think the Padres would put an end to this stuff.

The Padres don't see a whole lot of Molina, but he seems to rub out one of them every year, and every time, it's been at a key point.

There was Sean Burroughs, picked off four years ago with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning at Busch Stadium. And Brian Giles a year later, nailed for the final out of a game, after drifting off first at Petco Park. And who can forget the sight of another veteran, Mike Piazza, getting strafed by Molina in the 2006 playoffs?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Padres resolve Greene grievance

Former Padres shortstop Khalil Greene and the Padres were to square off in a grievance hearing this month.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Don't expect Young back this year


Chris Young's season likely is over.

Padres general manager Kevin Towers said tonight it doesn't make sense to bring back Young this year. A shoulder impingement has plagued Young for more than two months, and the pitcher said it's still a vexing condition.

"We want Chris to take as much time as he needs, and get him right in 2010," Towers said from Texas, where he is scouting Double-A players.

Young, described by teammates as hyper-competitive, has bulled his way back from injuries, such as the fractured nose/cracked skull he suffered last year and an oblique strain in 2007.

But he's not going to push it this time.

"I know going forward I will be 100-percent healthy the next time I go on the mound," said Young, who last pitched on June 14.

Young said he's not 100 percent. To resume normal activities, let alone pitching, he said it might take up to another six weeks to be 100 percent. Then, a lengthy rehab would be needed.

"Given where we are in the standings, I don't know if it would be worth the risk of pushing that," Young said.

Young said the consensus medical opinion is he has a "classic shoulder impingement" and "it just takes time to heal."

Surgery hasn't been ruled out, though, pending further rest. "Everything I've been told is that (surgery) would be very minor," the pitcher said.

Described by Towers as the No. 1 leader among Padres players, Young is still contributing to the Padres behind the scenes. Rookie pitcher Mat Latos lockers next to him and describes him as a key mentor. Young began counseling Latos in spring training and predicted in March that Latos would help the Padres this year.

Both Towers and Young said it's critical that Young (4-6, 5.21 ERA) regain full strength and flexibility, so that he can regain the life on his fastball. His velocity was down this year and for several outings in 2008.

"When there is no pain, I'll pitch," Young said. "I have been hopeful it would be at some point this year. I didn't expect this to linger like it has. But I can't control that. It's been more frustrating than last year. Last year, there was a set timetable. This is so indefinite and ambiguous. It's been frustrating."

Young also suggested he may have "tinkered" with his delivery to compensate for the impingement.

That's a road he's determined not to revisit.

The right-hander is guaranteed $6.25 million next year as part of a five-year deal that includes an $8.5 million club option for 2011. Contracts of such magnitude tend to be insured, potentially allowing the Padres to recoup a portion of the $4.5 million salary this year.

Young owns the Padres' only postseason victory this decade -- a scoreless outing at St. Louis in the 2006 playoffs.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I wish Padres chairman John Moores and CEO Jeff Moorad had been at Jack Murphy Stadium last night.

Yes, Jack Murphy Stadium. You can call it Qualcomm Stadium. Part of the place's charm for me is that it was named after a sportswriter. So I still call it the Murph.

Anyway, I walked onto the Murph's floor for Chargers practice and felt something strange -- the buzz of a crowd passionate about a San Diego team.

The Chargers were only warming up, but electricity flowed from the lower deck onto the field.

About 13,000 fans were there, many chanting for LaDainian Tomlinson, or screaming "Lights Out" at Shawne Merriman, or buzzing over warmup passes thrown by Philip Rivers. Every time Darren Sproles ran past a defender, cheers rolled across the stadium bowl.

I found the excitement striking, because I so seldom felt that kind of into-the-team buzz at Petco Park or Peoria Stadium this year or last year.


Or, believe it or not, even when the Padres were winning the National League West in 2005 and 2006 and challenging for first in late 2007.

Don't get me wrong. Petco is a gorgeous place, impeccably maintained, and many games there have entertained thousands of fans.

I just haven't felt as much electricity there as I expected that I would, or as I often felt at the Murph for Padres games.

Nostalgia may be shading my reactions somewhat. The Murph is a special place to me, especially the old Murph, before views of Mission Valley were blocked by the expanded seating. I used to run film for the San Diego Union in the mid-1980s, so I was at most Padres home games. Until the photographer handed me used rolls of film in the fifth or sixth inning, I watched baseball from a spectacular vantage: the field-level portholes behind home plate or the edge of a dugout.

Trust me, San Diego's passion for the Padres in 1984 has yet to be surpassed by any other sporting event here, including the Chargers' run to the Super Bowl in 1994-95. The fun in 1984 was a first-time love sort of thing, enhanced by how the Padres stunned the Cubs in the playoffs. The pregame buildup to Games 1 and 2 of the World Seres in 1984 was pure joy.

I also remembering how happy Moores was before Game 4 of the 1998 World Series at the Murph. In those days, Moores seldom missed a Padres game. He enjoyed talking baseball. So much so that beat reporters sometimes had to end the chat. In those days, Moores also seemed to genuinely like ballplayers, even the ones who could command big salaries.

Moores lives in Texas now, yet remains majority owner of the Padres. Reporting to him is Moorad, the Vice-Chairman and presumptive owner in waiting.

Strange, then, that Moorad told Darren Smith of the club's flagship radio station, 1090-AM, that he and Moores recently went more than three weeks without speaking to each other.

Doesn't seem like Moores is all that interested in his Padres.

Obviously if the Padres were to build a strong team, or even a more interesting one, Petco would become a livelier place. Maybe Moores and Moorad will get that done. Maybe Moorad's president, Tom Garfinkel, can work marketing magic similar to what we saw from Moores' former partner Larry Lucchino and his creative thinkers.

Some encouraging things are happening with the Padres.

While reporting on the Chargers last night, I didn't expect to think of both Moores and Moorad. But the crowd's energy sparked the notion that their being there would've been a helpful prod, something beyond affirmation that San Diego is a football town and sports teams go through cycles.

San Diegans can get excited about a local sports team, even if it's only for a routine practice under the lights.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sign language

The first day that Kyle Blanks took batting practice after the Padres promoted him from Triple-A, he swatted four balls off an advertising board that fronts Petco Park's second deck beyond left field.

Padres staffers were giggling as Blanks made Petco look tiny.

"I thought he was going to break that yellow sign out there," said bench coach Ted Simmons.

Blanks looked lost in the games, but during the last roadtrip, the 22-year-old figured out something. He's hit six home runs in the last 14 games and now Adrian Gonzalez isn't feeling so lonely in the San Diego lineup.

Especially promising was the home run that Blanks hit against the Nationals on July 26 -- a pull-shot off a hot, inside fastball. For weeks, Blanks had done little with routine inside fastballs, but this time, the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder got his legs and hands in synch early, then showed easy power.

Will Venable also figured something out, and he'll ride a 10-for-21 streak into tonight's game against the Braves.

Blanks and Venable are athletic players, as is rookie shortstop Everth Cabrera, who continues to outpace expectations for a player who was in Single-A last year.

Bottom line, it's been an encouraging two weeks for the Padres.

Padres officials, some of them still in disbelief, celebrated once Jake Peavy accepted the trade to the White Sox on Friday.

Understand that the same Padres officials would love to see Peavy give GM Kenny Williams and the White Sox a World Series title.

But the whole franchise exhaled once Peavy accepted the trade, freeing up $56 million and removing a trade specter that had hovered since October.