Breaking up is easy to do
The message has reached the San Diego Padres’ clubhouse loud and clear:
Win. Or else.
“We’re the Cleveland Indians in the movie ‘Major League,’ ” closer Heath Bell said.
Second base David Eckstein nodded and laughed when asked about comparisons with the fictionalized version of the Indians, who had to win a division title to avoid a move to Miami.
“That has been going around, yes,” Eckstein said.
“We know we need to win if we want to keep these guys here.”
While the weak-hitting Padres aren’t facing the threat of relocation, some of their high-profile players could be sent elsewhere to cut payroll and restock the farm system if they don’t start winning soon.
The Padres, who open a two-game series at Dodger Stadium tonight, have lost seven of their last 10 games and are 11 games out of first place.
Already, the Padres have reduced player salaries from $78 million last year to $46 million this year.
And they continue to make substantial efforts to move their most prized asset, ace Jake Peavy, who at the end of the season will still have at least $52 million remaining on his contract.
Yet amid the cost-cutting and never-ending rumors that Peavy is on his way out of town, glimmers of hope have emerged.
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez’s 22 home runs lead the majors. The same with Bell’s 17 saves.
The Padres also have the longest winning streak in baseball this year, a 10-game tear from May 15 to 25.
“Exceeded my expectations so far,” General Manager Kevin Towers said.
Then again, Towers added, “I don’t really know what my expectations are to this day because I don’t know who we really are.”
Nor does Towers know what his team will look like in September.
He said he would determine by the end of the month whether his team will be a buyer or a seller leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.
For the Padres to be buyers, Towers said, they would have to have at least a .500 record.
But win or lose, retaining Peavy might not be an option.
“It’s going to be difficult to compete year in and year out when one player is making a quarter of your payroll,” Towers said.
Peavy has a say in the matter, which is why he remains in San Diego. He invoked his no-trade clause last month to block a deal to the Chicago White Sox, who offered the Padres four prospects in return.
Peavy, who is 6-6 with a 3.97 earned-run average this season, had a respiratory infection last week and declined to speak to reporters.
But agent Barry Axelrod said his client wanted to remain in the National League, pitch for a contender and stay relatively close to his home in San Diego.
It was only two winters ago that Peavy signed a four-year, $52-million contract extension with the Padres.
What happened in the short period of time between then and now that made it necessary to move him?
The Padres lost to the Colorado Rockies in a one-game playoff to determine the National League wild card in 2007 but lost 99 games last season.
The decline in performance contributed to a decline in attendance -- 2.8 million fans to 2.4 million.
The Padres are on pace to draw 2 million fans this year and, Towers conceded, trading Peavy could further erode that fan base.
“In a perfect world, your star players and fan favorites are people you want to keep,” Towers said.
“For the fans, to see these players go elsewhere is a kick in the gut to them.”
Complicating matters is owner John Moores’ impending divorce, which forced him to sell the franchise to a group headed by former agent and Arizona Diamondbacks executive Jeff Moorad.
Moorad has made clear he intends to replicate the organizational blueprint of the Diamondbacks.
Moorad purchased an ownership stake of the Diamondbacks in 2004 and was their chief executive until he moved to the Padres this spring.
“In our market, we’ll never be able to afford the high-priced free agents,” Moorad said. “Our model will encourage drafting smart and player development.”
And the days of signing homegrown players such as Peavy to long-term deals could be something of the past.
“I believe that individual players are important, but I ascribe to [Oakland General Manager] Billy Beane’s theory that the name on the front means more than the name on the back,” Moorad said.
Moorad also said his group, which will purchase the Padres over the next five years for about $500 million, will “reinvest every last dollar of revenue generated back into the club.”
Uncertainty about the future has produced some unintended benefits.
“It definitely pulls you together,” Eckstein said.
An impassioned speech by Manager Bud Black in Chicago at the conclusion of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs last month had a similar effect.
“There were some things I wanted to say and I said it,” Black said.
Eckstein said the sudden outburst of emotion by the usually calm Black awakened the Padres’ young clubhouse.
“Guys took it to heart,” Eckstein said.
The next day, the Padres let go of two of their relievers, releasing Duaner Sanchez and demoting Edwin Moreno to triple-A.
The Padres won their next 10 games. The bullpen gave up only one earned run in 33 innings over that stretch.
But this was mostly the same bullpen that was charged with 29 runs in 30 innings over a stretch in which the Padres were 5-19.
About the only constants this season have been the performances of Gonzalez and Bell, both of whom are under the Padres’ control for two more seasons.
Uncertainty about the club’s direction has both players uncertain about their futures.
Because Bell’s contractual status might make him attractive to other clubs -- he isn’t eligible to be a free agent until the end of the 2011 season -- the closer said he has wondered if he could be traded.
“I want to move to San Diego, but that’s one of the things holding that off,” said Bell, who makes his off-season home in Florida.
Gonzalez, who spent his childhood in San Diego and Tijuana, was also noncommittal about his future.
Asked whether he saw himself remaining in San Diego for long, Gonzalez replied, “I can’t say that right now. It’s too early.”