In 17 seasons as a Padre broadcaster and one as manager, Jerry Coleman has seen a lot of third basemen come and go. Mainly go. Maybe that is why he was so blunt in his assessment of the team’s ragged history at the position.
“There have been only two third basemen since I’ve been here, and both of them were over the hill when they got here,” Coleman said. “One was Doug Rader and the other was Graig Nettles. The rest of them were 17 guys named Joe.”
Actually, a check of opening day Padre third basemen over the past 20 seasons reveals nary a Joe. But outside of Nettles, there is not a potential Hall of Famer in the group. The list reads more like a who’s who of who’s he.
The Padre opening day third basemen since the franchise was founded: Ed Spiezio (1969, 1971), Van Kelly (1970), Dave Campbell (1972), Dave Hilton (1973-74), Glenn Beckert (1975), Rader (1976-77), Bill Almon (1978), Barry Evans (1979), Aurelio Rodriguez (1980), Luis Salazar (1981-83), Nettles (1984), Jerry Royster (1985-86), Kevin Mitchell (1987) and Chris Brown (1988).
Monday night against San Francisco at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, Randy Ready figures to add his name to that rather unimpressive list. He will be the 15th player in the team’s 21 seasons to open the season at third base, confirming once again that turmoil, not tradition, has governed the position.
Finding a steady third baseman has been a franchise-long search. The problem is one Padre management readily acknowledges; the solution is not so easily found.
“No question, third basemen have been a scarce commodity,” said Jack McKeon, the former general manager and now manager. “When I’ve gone looking, they have been hard to find.”
The trade winds were filled during the off-season and spring with talk of the Padres obtaining a third baseman. There were reports of interest in Howard Johnson of the New York Mets, Mike Pagliarulo of the New York Yankees and Jim Presley of Seattle, among others.
But all the talk produced only a relatively minor trade with Detroit. In exchange for shortstop Mike Brumley, the Padres reacquired Luis Salazar, a 32-year-old journeyman utility man. Salazar’s experience demonstrates as well as anyone the franchise’s unsettled situation at third. He is back on the Padre roster for the third time in his career and leads the team with three opening day starts at third.
“Luis is not a bad third baseman,” Coleman said. “But when he joined my club (in 1980), he was an outfielder. We used to spend time every practice working him (at) third.”
The Padres’ conversion of Salazar is typical.
They have tried turning shortstops into third basemen (Almon), second basemen into third basemen (Beckert) and even outfielders into third basemen (Hilton). Ready is no exception. He was signed by Milwaukee as a second baseman and started there in the Padre opener last year.
His left-handed platoon partner, Tim Flannery, who played third almost exclusively last season, has played more than twice as many games in his career at second (542) than he has at third (210). And Flannery, who turns 32 at the end of the season, and Salazar are second in age only to first baseman Jack Clark among the team’s non-pitchers.
That means the long-term future of the Padres at third must be elsewhere. But turning to other teams does not appear to be the answer.
“Look around the major leagues and see how many clubs have problems at third base,” said Tom Romenesko, the Padre director of player development. “You look around for quality people, not just in this organization but in other organizations, and you find that third base is just a difficult position to fill.”
Romenesko pointed to the Padres’ deal with San Francisco in June 1987 as a demonstration of the ongoing search. It involved an exchange of third basemen--Kevin Mitchell and Chris Brown.
“The Giants took one of our third basemen (Mitchell), and now he’s in the outfield,” Romenesko said. “We took one of their third basemen (Brown), and now he is in Detroit (traded in October with Keith Moreland for Walt Terrell).”
“The answer,” McKeon said, “is we are going to have to make guys third basemen.”
That, too, has been more easily said than done. But the Padres are trying. Romenesko said there are two players in the minor league system he believes could in the future provide the answer to the Padres’ third-base blues.
One is Carlos Baerga, 20, who last season batted .273 with 12 home runs and 65 RBIs at double-A Wichita. The other is David Hollins, 22, who hit .304 with nine home runs and 92 RBIs at Class A Riverside.
Baerga was in the major league camp this spring and has been moved up to triple-A Las Vegas. This is only his second season at third; he was switched from second. Hollins was drafted two years as a third baseman and is being moved up to take Baerga’s place at Wichita.
“Those two are outstanding prospects,” Romenesko said. “But we have to have some patience. Carlos Baerga can hit. But he is only 20 years old.”
But Romenesko’s optimism might be tempered by the experience of other teams, who have also failed in their search for third basemen. Even the can’t-miss prospects have failed.
Consider the experience of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They made Jeff King of the University of Arkansas the first player selected in the 1986 June free agent draft, believing he was their third baseman of the future. But after three seasons in the minors, none above double-A, King has a .258 career average.
“He is struggling, and he was the No. 1 pick in the country,” Romenesko said. “It’s difficult because the draft is such a crap shoot. And third base is a very difficult position to draft, not only for us but for a lot of other clubs. That premium third baseman who is able to step in and do the job is never truly available.”
The Padres aren’t searching for the next Brooks Robinson or Mike Schmidt. Finding a third baseman who can hit like Schmidt or field like Robinson is a rarity. All they are asking for is someone who can hit with some regularity and field adequately.
“Your third baseman has to have a little of both, but what you really want with those guys on the corner is someone with a little bigger sock,” Romenesko said.
Said Coleman: “Third base is a position where you are willing to give up a little defense to get the bat. It’s a power position, like first base.”
Coleman said he likes what he has seen of Baerga. But he remains cautious, if only because he has seen so many third base possibilities pass through San Diego.
“I really thought Kevin Mitchell had a chance to be the best if he had stayed and worked at it,” Coleman said. “The only other guy who might have been a pretty good player was Dave Roberts.”
Roberts was the great tease. In 1973, his second season in the majors, he hit 21 home runs and batted .286 in 127 games for the Padres, 111 of them at third base. But he hit only nine total home runs in his next four seasons before being traded to Texas.
“He looked like he was on his way to being a 25-a-year home run guy,” Coleman said. “But he had that one good year, and it was over. Nobody except for Nettles and Rader were really great at that position.”
But Rader, who played parts of two seasons with the Padres, was in the next-to-last season of an 11-year career when he arrived in 1976. And Nettles was one season away from the end of his 21-season career when he left the Padres after the 1986 season, his third with the team.
Yet Nettles, who turned 40 during the 1984 season, helped lead the Padres to their only National League pennant.
Whether Ready or Flannery or Salazar, in any combination, can provide that kind of boost will be determined. For now, all McKeon knows is that is what he has available is not much different than followers of Padre history should expect.