In one corner of the clubhouse, Sandy Alomar Jr. was quietly sobbing. In another, Shawn Abner was clenching his fists, again and again. At a nearby table, his eyes covered with sunglasses, Joey Cora spoke slowly.
“Sometimes some of us wonder, just what does it take?” he said.
Padres who thought they knew discovered Friday they didn’t. In roster cuts that were in some cases as stunning as they were sweeping, five top Padre prospects were sent to the minor leagues. Included were outfielder Abner, who was considered a lock for the fifth outfield spot, and catcher Alomar Jr., who many thought would be traded by now.
“For some of us, I guess, that door is too big to knock down,” Alomar, 22, said softly.
The demotion of Alomar, the heralded prospect who is not good enough to supplant Benito Santiago but too good to rust on the bench as a backup, proved that the baseball world still is unwilling to give Padre Manager Jack McKeon the kind of value he requires in a trade. It also proved McKeon is willing to wait for that value, even if it means upsetting a kid one publication called its minor league player of the year last season. Alomar now will return to triple-A Las Vegas feeling he has nothing left to prove.
“Everybody expect me to be sent down--except me,” Alomar Jr. said after spending 15 minutes softly crying in front of his locker, much like his brother Roberto did last year after his brief demotion at the end of camp. “The difference between me and Roberto is, he have a chance up here, I have no chance. I thought I be in the big leagues somewhere, but no.
“I don’t make the trades. That’s not my job. But I guess they are asking too much for me. Going back to triple-A, it depresses me. What more can I do?”
The demotion of Abner, who hit in eight of the past nine spring games at a .320 pace, proved that McKeon remains steadfast in his feeling that the big-league bench is no place for young talent to grow up.
“When they told me Jack wanted to see me today, I thought he was telling me I made the team,” Abner said. “Then he drops the rock on me. I asked him, why? He told me it was a case of numbers. I just don’t understand it anymore.”
Among Friday’s survivors were infielder/outfielder Bip Roberts, infielder Gary Green and first baseman Rob Nelson. Although all three were long shots to make the team when camp began--Green wasn’t even on the major league roster--it appears that two will start the season with the Padres while the odd man out will be left in Las Vegas when the big league team visits its triple-A team there next weekend.
Roberts and Green, who each can play a couple of positions while Nelson can play only first, are heavy favorites to stick.
“We have to decide if the Roberts and Green type of player is more valuable than the guy who can come off the bench only occasionally,” McKeon said.
But after Friday, who knows what might happen next?
Groused Abner: “This is a crazy, crazy game.”
Replied McKeon: “Hey, life is full of surprises.”
Shaking down this latest surprise:
--Cut Friday were young outfielders Abner, Jerald Clark and Randell Byers, infielder Cora, and catcher Alomar Jr.
--There are 29 players left on a roster that must be trimmed to 24 by April 3. But that number is deceiving.
Two of those remaining--pitcher Eric Nolte (ulcer) and outfielder Shane Mack (sore elbow)--likely will start the season on the disabled list before being sent to triple-A when they are healthy.
Another, minor league catcher Mike Basso, is just hanging around to make sure all the pitchers can get their late spring work.
Finally, pitcher Pat Clements is still around because the Angels are interested in re-acquiring him, and he will be showcased in Palm Springs during the Padres’ four upcoming games there. Clements began his pro career in 1983 with the Angels, pitching for them for the first four months of 1985.
This leaves 25 players for 24 spots.
--The Padres will carry 10 pitchers, two catchers, four true outfielders and eight infielder/outfielder/utility men. The unusual arrangement is a result of McKeon’s love for versatility. His dream team would be Tony Gwynn and 13 other guys who can play anywhere and everywhere.
The starting pitchers, in order, will be Eric Show, Bruce Hurst, Ed Whitson, Dennis Rasmussen and Walt Terrell.
The relievers will be led by left-handed stopper Mark Davis and right-handed stopper Mark Grant, who likely won the role Friday with two scoreless innings, including four strikeouts, in a 2-1 victory over Oakland. It will be filled out by left-handed setup man Dave Leiper and right-handed setup men Greg Booker and Greg Harris, who is the team’s emergency starter.
The catchers will be starter Benito Santiago and backup Mark Parent.
The outfielders will be John Kruk, Tony Gwynn, Carmelo Martinez and backup Marvell Wynne.
The starting infielders will be Jack Clark, Roberto Alomar, Garry Templeton and Randy Ready/Tim Flannery. The only sure utility infielder will be Luis Salazar, acquired from Detroit in Thursday’s trade that sent shortstop Mike Brumley to the Tigers. Salazar also can play the outfield.
Roberts, Green and Nelson will fight over the other two utility spots.
--The catalyst for Friday’s cuts can be described in two words, and they aren’t spring statistics --"I don’t even know what some of these guys’ statistics are,” McKeon said.
Those words are Luis Salazar. Because he played 68 of his 130 games with Detroit last year in the outfield--committing just one error in 132 chances--he knocked Abner directly out of the picture. Because he can play all three infield positions well, he knocked Cora out of the picture.
The reason his presence didn’t affect Green was that, in spite of Green’s .105 spring average, the Padres need a true shortstop backup for Templeton, who played just 105 games there last year.
The reason his presence didn’t affect Roberts was that, even though Roberts plays the same positions as Salazar, the Padre bosses are figuring he might be needed if Salazar sneaks the starting third base job away from Ready.
If Roberts makes it, it will be the second time he has started with the big league team--he was in the majors the entire 1986 season. If Green makes it, it will be his first big-league opening day. He has just 13 games of big league experience, accrued at the end of the 1986 season, and thus will join Greg Harris as one of only two rookies on the club.
It’s actually surprising that there are that many. Blame it on the law of physics as it affects a team like the Padres. On a potential pennant contender, all youth movements point directly to the back door.
“I think everybody who was sent down today understood,” McKeon said late Friday afternoon. “I sure didn’t want any of these guys sitting on the bench. It’s all timing, and they just had bad timing. A couple of years ago, their timing would have been good. Not now.”
Particularly not for Alomar, who showed powerful skills this spring with a good arm behind the plate and three doubles, a homer and seven RBI despite a .192 average.
Said McKeon, “Hey, he can use more minor league experience.”
What McKeon was really saying was, hey, going to minor leagues won’t hurt his trade value.
“Who are two of the top prospects around--Alomar and that New York Mets pitcher, David West, right?” McKeon asked. “You see where West got sent out a couple of days ago? You think they’re worried about trading him from triple-A? It’s no problem. It’s still early. A lot of things could happen.”
Said Alomar: “All I know is, when I came here I didn’t know what happened, and now I know less.”