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Padres Just a Player Away

If the 1991 Padres were an automobile, it would not be very pretty.

Indeed, kick one fender and all four probably would fall off. The bumpers would be rusty, the windshield cracked and the radiator leaky. It would look like a candidate for a destruction derby.

However, it has run well.

With the season down to its final days, the Padres are scrapping to stay above .500 and hold onto third place in the National League West.

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Not bad.

These guys were projected to finish fifth in the NL West, maybe, just maybe, squeezing up to fourth place if they stayed healthy. The lineup and batting order were full of craters. And then injuries hit in such epidemic proportions that what little was there was gone.

It is time now to pat these overachievers on their heads and look forward to 1992.

To continue the automobile parallel, this is the winter when the ownership cadre must spend the bucks to upgrade the model. This is the winter when ownership must send the message that it is willing to commit the resources to take this team from the fringes of contention into the heat of a pennant race.

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The Padres come out of the 1991 season looking much the same as when they went into it.

The nucleus is the same. The best players figured to be Tony Gwynn, Tony Fernandez, Fred McGriff and Benito Santiago. The best players were Tony Gwynn, Tony Fernandez, Fred McGriff and Benito Santiago. No surprises there.

The starting rotation figured to be sound. And it was sound . . . on those rare occasions when it was healthy.

There was uncertainty at second base, third base, left field, center field and in the bullpen. That was the way it was in April, and that is the way it is in September.

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Bip Roberts fits somewhere, of course, but he seems to have become somewhat of a bandage. He fits according to who is hurt. And he too has spent considerable time in the training room.

What about Tim Teufel, Darrin Jackson, Jerald Clark and Thomas Howard? Do they fit? Where?

What the Padres really need is someone who must fit. That is the challenge of the 1991-92 off-season. The Padres need to acquire an impact player.

And trades are not the answer. McGriff and Fernandez have performed quite nicely this summer, but the Padres gave up Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter to get them. Those holes are still there.

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Let’s not fill one hole and create another one this time around.

It is time for ownership to spend a few bucks. In fact, make that a lot of bucks.

Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull are both likely to be available as free agents. Either of them would tuck in quite nicely behind McGriff in the batting order.

At what cost?

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Whatever the marketplace demands. If other teams are willing to pay them, the Padres should be willing as well.

There can be no excuses. Period. Don’t plead skewed salary structures, because these are skewed every time a new wave of free agents hits the streets. And don’t plead building from within, because anyone remotely close to being ready has been here this summer.

You see, players of that magnitude have a tendency to make holes smaller. You don’t need as much from your second baseman or center fielder, perhaps, if you have a Bonilla or Tartabull in left field.

Maybe you put Darrin Jackson in center field and find out 18 home runs in little more than half a season of playing time is no fluke. Maybe you trade Bip Roberts for a relief pitcher and turn second base over to Tim Teufel, unless you loosen your wallets one more time and sign Mariano Duncan.

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Ownership can reshape the nature of this team with one swipe of a pen, albeit some very big numbers would be above that signature.

Moves like this might not make fiscal sense if a team is four or five years from contention, but that is not the case with the Padres. They had a better-than-expected year in 1991. They can be there in 1992.

It’s time for an impact move, and it’s all up to ownership. It might be interested in being visited by 50,000 excited fans in September rather than 10,000 yawning fans.

The guys in the three-piece suits can win games, too.

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