The San Diego Padres finished last in the National League West in 2016, and they are predicted to finish there again in 2017. But go back to last July. I remember walking the downtown and the waterfront on the Saturday before the All-Star Game and recounting that in 40-something years of all-star festivities, I had never experienced such a pregame weekend buzz as there was that weekend.
Of course, San Diego itself—the streets and restaurants and building that followed Larry Lucchino’s vision when the Padres moved from out-of-town and out-of-date Qualcomm Stadium in 2004—is a place people who live in the Northeast dream of every January.
Since they began as an expansion franchise in 1969, the Padres have always seemed trapped in a corner, surrounded by water to the west, Mexico to the south, desert to the east and the Dodgers and Angels to the north.
The Fightin’ Friars have survived, and stayed. The NBA’s Rockets and Clippers and NFL’s Chargers did not stay. The Padres finished first in the NL West in 1996 and won an NL pennant in 1998 that Lucchino and owner John Moores turned into the elegant but not ostentatious Petco Park. When Trevor Hoffman fell five votes short of the Hall of Fame this year, Padres general manager A.J. Preller credited the closer as “the biggest reason we have Petco and the Padres are where they are.”
Now, beware the mighty Pads—both what they will be and the angle of their ascension come September. Preller and owner Ron Fowler made a splash following the 2014 season with the acquisitions of Matt Kemp, James Shields, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel, but that splash saw them lose more games in 2015 than they had the year before. But the splash got nearly 2.5 million fans into Petco. Then came the All-Star Game in 2016 and another 2.4 million fans.
Indians Provide The Template
No, the Padres won’t challenge the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West this year. They probably will finish behind the Diamondbacks and Rockies, too. Rotation instability in San Diego accounts for that.
If you are a Padres fan, climb into your time machine and go back to the 1991. The Indians, fenced in an aging city-state known as “The Mistake by the Lake,” lost 105 games and cost manager John McNamara his job. But McNamara let two 24-year-old college players, Charles Nagy and Albert Belle, establish themselves. By September, Sandy Alomar Jr. was catching, a 20-year-old Jim Thome came out of the minors, as did 22-year-old Carlos Baerga, and a creative, energetic GM named John Hart worked tirelessly to build the organization.
Three years later, Cleveland went 66-47 when the strike hit. In 1995, they won 100 games and lost the World Series to the Braves. Dick Jacobs built The Jake, and they sold it out every night for years.
The Padres have another parallel with those early-’90s Indians: While Hart built, the NFL’s Browns snuck out of town and the NBA’s Cavaliers played in the suburbs.
Now return to the present. The area near Petco is booming. It’s a prime convention area.
Like the Browns, the Chargers, as J.D. Souther says, have run like a thief in the night. “People here are ticked off about the Chargers,” Preller said. He avoids building expectations but proudly points back to a prospect game in September in which the Padres hosted the Rangers in a game of minor leaguers, this after an in-season adjustment that saw Preller trade Shields, Kemp, all-star Drew Pomeranz, Melvin Upton, Fernando Rodney and Andrew Cashner.
The expectation was for a crowd in the hundreds. They drew close to 7,500, and one Rangers official said “it was worth it just to see Cal Quantrill and Anderson Espinoza pitch.”
Hope On The Horizon
Righthanders Quantrill and Espinoza are not going to be opening the season in Petco, though Quantrill, the 2016 first-rounder from Stanford, could make a September cameo. They are elite starting-pitcher prospects, however, in an era when the top 10 starting pitchers average $22.5 million salaries.
The Padres probably will open this season with 22-year-old Manuel Margot, whom they acquired from the Red Sox in the Kimbrel deal, in center field. They should have 25-year-old Hunter Renfroe, who hit 30 homers at Triple-A, in right field. At first base, Wil Myers is 26 and an all-star. The catcher will be 24-year-old Austin Hedges. The farm system is considered one of the best in the business, and Preller’s aggressiveness in finding and trading for young talent is evident.
Watch these Padres as we watched the Indians in 1992. I remember exactly where Thome first introduced himself to me that spring training, and, in September, I remember seeing Thome, Alomar, Belle, Baerga and Kenny Lofton in the lineup.
Fast-forward to late this summer, and up and down the streets near Petco Park and the water, fans will be watching Margot and Hedges, maybe Quantrill, and second baseman Carlos Asuaje and more names to be learned later, realizing this is rapidly becoming the Padres’ town.
A lot of us walked those streets and that waterfront at the Winter Meetings in 2015 and again last July thinking, “Come January, remind me why I don’t live here.” Pretty soon, there are going to be a lot of players who look at the San Diego’s young talent and think “Why wouldn’t I live there?”
By Peter Gammons @ Gammons Daily