On Baseball: The Padres Have San Diego, and the Spotlight, to Themselves


“It stings, collectively, throughout the city, and everybody feels that,” Padres Manager Andy Green said. “I don’t think it’s really our responsibility to try to replace the Chargers; I don’t think we’re capable of doing that, nor are we trying to do that. But we’re going to try to rally this city together behind a team that is building something for the future of San Diego and recognizing that we’re San Diego’s team.”

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Kevin Quackenbush, Buddy Baumann, Keith Hessler and Logan Bawcom watching their fellow pitcher Aroni Nina in a Padres spring training drill in Peoria, Ariz.

Credit
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The Padres have been San Diego’s team since 1969, when they joined the National League as a mustard-and-brown expansion franchise that lost 110 games. All these years later, in generic white and navy, they still have not won a championship. The Chargers never won a Super Bowl, either; they were routed in their only appearance, in 1995, just as the Padres were swiftly beaten in the World Series of 1984 and 1998.

The memory of that latter run, at least, sustains the current group. “You talk to Trevor Hoffman, and he talks about what the fans were like when they were making their World Series push,” said Austin Hedges, a young catcher who lives in town, speaking of the Padres’ former star closer. “It’s an incredible city that loves their sports teams. We don’t really think about the Chargers being gone; we just know what we’re capable of and what we want to bring to the city, and that’s a championship.”

For this season, anyway, the Padres might be further from that goal than any other team. They recently signed Myers, who had 28 homers and 28 steals last season, to a six-year, $83 million contract extension. But several positions are unsettled, and with few reliable starters, Green has said he may consider a piggyback style of game management, with starters replaced quickly by long relievers.

Far below the surface, though, the Padres believe they are positioned well. Last summer, with several big-spending teams restricted in their spending allotments, General Manager A. J. Preller poured $70 million into the draft and international markets. He also made several trades for prospects, bolstering a farm system whose talent level has risen to third in baseball, from 20th, in rankings by ESPN’s Keith Law. Only the Braves and the Yankees rank higher.

Preller was perhaps too aggressive in his trades; he was suspended for a month late last season after the commissioner’s office determined the Padres had not provided complete medical records to rival teams. But the result of the whirlwind season, Preller hopes, will be the kind of foundation that has helped his old team, the Texas Rangers, win throughout this decade.

“When you build something, you’re not trying to be mediocre, where you have a team that, if you hit everything, can win 85 games and get a wild card,” he said. “Hopefully you’re able to build it where you’ve got a chance to have a window for a number of years and you have waves of talent coming in, so even if you don’t get a lot of things right, you still have so much depth and so many players that you can have a chance to win 90-plus games every year and compete for a World Series. That’s the mind-set we have, and I think the fans understand.”

Soon after the Padres hired Preller in August 2014, he engineered a flurry of trades for veterans like Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel and Justin Upton. The fans responded, with attendance rising to 2.45 million in 2015, the highest since 2007, when the Padres were coming off consecutive division titles. But when the 2015 team flopped, Preller pivoted quickly, dealing away some of the newcomers and letting others leave for draft-pick compensation.

While one trade backfired badly (acquiring Kemp from the Dodgers for catcher Yasmani Grandal), it was a worthwhile strategy; the Padres needed a jolt, and Preller had planned to rebuild the farm system, anyway. He said it was healthy to raise expectations at the start, so fans would understand that the team would try anything to win.

“You find out a lot when people expect you to do well,” Preller said. “Sometimes it can be easier when people view you as the underdog and there’s not a lot of expectation on exactly what you’re going do. When you really have it going well is when you have expectations for your franchise and you’re able to meet or exceed those expectations every year. That’s the franchise we want to get to, and we’re hopefully building toward that.”

The Padres acquired their best prospect, the 22-year-old center fielder Manuel Margot, before last season in a trade with the Boston Red Sox. Last summer, in the Futures Game in San Diego, Margot made a leaping catch to rob a home run. He returned for a late-season cameo after hitting .304 with 30 steals in Class AAA.

“Manny Margot is a really exciting baseball player,” Green said. “He plays with a big smile on his face. He flies around the field. He’s kind of a slasher at the plate who’s going to hit the ball all over the yard, take competitive at-bats and be a real threat on the basepaths.”

Padres fans have heard about prospects before, of course; every losing team likes to promote its future. The difference now is that fans have no local alternative. The spotlight is theirs, and the Padres promise a good performance. They just need time.

“We could become very popular,” Myers said. “We start winning, the city rallies around us — once we do take that next step to being a great team, I think it could be really cool for the city.”

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