Sooner or later, and it will probably happen before you realize it, Tony Gwynn could be the Padres’ hitting instructor rather than hitter extraordinaire. And Garry Templeton will be taking his sons out to the back yard to play catch rather than to San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
Jack Clark may be sitting behind a steering wheel in the Daytona 500.
Then this: Padre fans could very well be trading bubble gum cards of players such as Rafael Valdez, Will Taylor and Dave Staton.
Of course, there are no guarantees. You could also meet one of these guys in a few years while he’s servicing your car in some gas station. Minor league success does not always translate to the majors.
The Padres have plenty of players in their farm system who can hit minor league pitching, and they have several pitchers who can throw a baseball past minor league hitters. The question is, who can do it in the majors? There are a few obvious prospects, guys such as Jerald Clark and Eric Nolte who have been called up at one time or another. But what about the guys who have never appeared in a major league game.
Maybe the most mysterious and optimistic word in baseball is “prospect.” Men wearing faded, worn baseball pants sit on benches with peeling paint in places such as Yuma, studying some kid in his early 20s or late teens. It could be during spring training or mid-summer, or maybe during the winter. These men come to conclusions, most of which send kids onward with their lives, some of which make fantasies come true.
“A guy you put on paper one year isn’t necessarily a prospect,” said Jack Lamabe, the Padres’ minor league pitching instructor. “One year a kid throws 82 miles an hour for you, and the next year he comes back and throws 85 or 86, and you say ‘Wow!’ And it wasn’t coaching. It was maturity.”
Lamabe is one of the men who travel through the Padre farm system, to places like Charleston, S.C., Wichita, Kan., and Las Vegas, Nev., developing and evaluating aspiring major leaguers.
The organization is more prone to pay special attention to injured players than obvious talent. Consider the case of Billy (Squeezer) Thompson, a 1988 fourth-round draft choice who is headed for single-A Charleston this year. He pitched just two innings last year at Scottsdale before undergoing an operation for a bone spur in his right--pitching--shoulder.
“We’ll follow him now to see if he can really throw like a fourth-round draft choice,” Lamabe said.
If he can, he may move up a level next year. If he can’t, he can always buy a ticket to see a major league game.
“We don’t have anybody like, ‘That’s the next Andy Benes,’ but there are kids who can make it,” Lamabe said.
Valdez, Taylor and Staton are three guys who intrigue those in the Padre organization. Valdez is a pitcher who might catch on briefly at the start of the season because of the expanded roster. Taylor, a swift center fielder, is probably two or three years away. Staton, a third baseman who may be moved to first, has one of the best bats in the organization.
Valdez, 21, eventually will be in Las Vegas (triple A) this season, but the fact that he was on the Padres’ 40-man roster this spring was quite an accomplishment because he has pitched only two seasons. A converted shortstop, Valdez was picked in the second round of the Dominican draft in 1985. He spent 1986 and 1987 playing shortstop in Charleston before being converted to pitcher.
“He makes me as proud as any young player who has ever come through the system,” said Tom Romenesko, Padre director of player development.
Valdez, 11-4 at Charleston in 1988, moved to Riverside (single A) in 1989 and was 10-5 with a 2.26 ERA. He struck out 137, allowed just 89 hits in 143 innings and threw a perfect game. He was moved up to Wichita (double A), where he went 5-0 with a 1.94 ERA in six games.
“He has exceeded our expectations,” Romenesko said.
Taylor is a leadoff-type hitter who has been in the organization four years and shown flashes but no consistency. He stole 60 bases at Riverside last year but needs to learn to utilize his speed. He will play in Wichita this summer.
“During our two-week mini-camp (last winter), I told Will he had to have 150 stolen base attempts by August,” Romenesko said. “If he is 0 for 150, that’s fine with me.”
Staton was drafted in the fifth round last June out of Cal State Fullerton. He spent the year at Spokane and became the first triple-crown winner in Northwest League history, batting .362 with 17 home runs and 72 RBIs.
“Probably the best bat we’ve had in the organization, as far as the ball jumping off the bat, since Kevin McReynolds,” Dunlop said. “But to say he is a prospect is a little premature. He was a college player. In all honesty, he should do a little better than the high school kids. After he goes one full season, we’ll see.”
Staton played third base last season but will likely be moved to first because he is neither quick nor agile. If he continues to hit the way he did last summer, though, his weaknesses will be more easily overlooked.
“His position is ‘bat,’ ” Romenesko said. “B-A-T.”
Staton will spend his first full summer in professional baseball in Riverside. Time will help determine whether he is, as Romenesko likes to say, a prospect or a suspect.
Here are three legitimate prospects:
--Thomas Howard, outfielder: In their master plan, the Padres had hoped Howard would be ready for the majors within the next year. He has talent and speed and is a switch-hitter who bats a bit better left-handed than right.
The problem with Howard is that he has yet to step forward and assert his ability. He has been hampered by injuries for two consecutive years and, at 25, needs to take off. He was batting .337 at Las Vegas last season when a knee injury sidelined him for a 1 1/2 months. He finished at .300.
The Padres have liked Howard since 1986, when they selected him in the first round of the June draft. But he is on the verge of a make-it-or-break-it year, opening the season at Las Vegas, his second consecutive year in triple A.
--Roger Smithberg, right-handed pitcher: He is 24 and was picked in the second round of the June 1987 draft. He pitched at Riverside in 1988 and jumped all the way up to Las Vegas in 1989, when he went 7-7 with a 4.47 ERA.
“We really think a lot of him,” Romenesko said. “We felt enough for him last year that we moved him from Riverside to triple A, and he held his own.”
--Pedro Martinez, left-handed pitcher: He gained 35 pounds since he signed, but that’s not a negative. He is 6-feet-2 and still only around 160 pounds. Martinez, 21, was the pitcher of the year in the South Atlantic League last season, his third in professional baseball. He tied for the league lead in victories (14-8) and led the league in ERA (1.97) and innings pitched (187). He will play in Wichita this season.
Pitcher Ricky Bones, meanwhile, has been on the Padres’ roster for two consecutive springs but is still just 21. He was the youngest player in Double-A ball last season. He went 10-9 at Wichita with a 5.74 ERA. He was signed as a free agent in May, 1986.
Outfielder Alex Cole and pitcher Jeremy Hernandez, both obtained from St. Louis, are two more legitimate prospects. Cole, a speedy center fielder who plays good defense, will start in Las Vegas. Hernandez also will start the season in Las Vegas.
As for one of the Padres’ biggest needs, a shortstop to replace Templeton, don’t expect a savior to appear anytime soon out of the minors. Scott Bream, who will play in Charleston this summer, has been called the best pure fielder in the organization but probably won’t hit higher than the low .200s.
PADRES’ TOP PROSPECTS
CATCHER: Kevin Higgins, 23, Riverside. Batted .332 in Northwest League last year. Left-handed hitter. Converted infielder. Best long-range catching prospect.
FIRST BASE: Kevin Garner, 24, Las Vegas. Arm injury forced him to give up pitching career in 1988. Had 19 homers and 63 RBIs in Wichita last year. Ready by ’92
SECOND BASE: Paul Faries, 25, Las Vegas. Was invited to big league camp this spring, but who wants to be a second baseman in Padre organization right now?
SHORTSTOP: Jose Valentin, 20, Wichita. Probably won’t be ready before 1992. Good field but still needs to hit consistently. Batted just .194 at Riverside last year but learned he needed glasses, then went on to hit .245 at Wichita.
THIRD BASE: Dave Staton, 21, Riverside. First winner of Northwest League triple crown, batting .362 with 17 homers and 72 RBI last summer in Spokane.
OUTFIELD: Thomas Howard, 25, Las Vegas, Batted .300 at Las Vegas last summer and was on Padre 40-man roster this winter. Missed time because of injuries last two years.
--Alex Cole, 24, Las Vegas. Fast, loves to play defense, spent past two seasons at triple-A Louisville in St. Louis organization.
--Will Taylor, 21, Wichita. Doesn’t yet have the consistency it will take to reach the top but definitely has the speed. Batted .255 at Riverside last year.
--Charley Hillemann, 24, Wichita. Excellent defense, but hitting is suspect. Batted just .243 at Wichita last season.
PITCHING: Rafael Valdez, 21, Las Vegas. Converted infielder, may have strongest arm in organization.
--Jeremy Hernandez, 23, Las Vegas. Obtained from St. Louis organization.
--Ricky Bones, 21, Las Vegas. Youngest player in double A last season. Went 10-9 at Wichita.
--Darrin Reichle, 24, Las Vegas. Two no-hitters at Charleston in 1988, struck out 10 or more batters five times at Riverside last season.
--Roger Smithberg, 24, Las Vegas. Invited to major league camp this spring after just two professional seasons. Was 7-7 at Las Vegas last year.
--Pedro Martinez, 21, Wichita. Tied for South Atlantic League lead in victories (14-8) and led the league in ERA (1.97) and innings pitched (187) last year.
LEVELS: Las Vegas, triple A; Wichita, double A; Charleston, Riverside, Spokane, Waterloo, Spokane, single A.