Padres face small-market problems

From San Diego

The kingdom could be theirs, and theirs alone.

There are no market monopolies among the major league teams this year, but there could be one next year. If the Chargers move from San Diego — most likely to Los Angeles — the Padres will become the only team in the majors without competition from the NFL, NBA or NHL.

That might be about the most positive light the Padres could put on trading their best player over the winter: Adrian Gonzalez wasn't going to be here in two years anyway! The Chargers probably won't be here! We'll still be here!

Yet the San Diego market is too small and too sophisticated to ensure the Padres prosperity, even as the only game in town. The Padres cannot pack Petco Park unless they win, but they are too smart to swap their superstar for three minor leaguers and proclaim they are a better team. The Padres won 90 games last season, alive to the last day.

"Are we going to win 90 games this season? Probably not," said Jeff Moorad, the Padres' chief executive.

They were supposed to lose 90 last season, if not 100. You never know.

They had Gonzalez signed for $6.3 million this season, same as the Dodgers are paying Chad Billingsley. Why not keep Gonzalez and take another run at October?

"Everybody kept saying how improbable our run was last year," General Manager Jed Hoyer said. "I didn't want to double down on improbable."

In Gonzalez, the Padres had an extraordinarily valuable trade chip, an impact hitter two years shy of 30.

The Padres thought it made no sense to sign him to a contract under which he might take up one-third of the player payroll. Gonzalez also thought that made no sense, even with a no-trade clause, for fear of the Jake Peavy precedent: We can't afford a quality supporting cast and your contract too, so stay here and lose or let us trade you somewhere you would rather not go.

So a trade would be made, and the Padres posed the questions that compelled them to move Gonzalez over the winter rather than at the July trade deadline: What if Gonzalez got hurt? What if Prince Fielder were on the market in July too? Remember how the Atlanta Braves got nothing valuable when they traded Mark Teixeira to the Angels as a rental player, two months before his free agency?

Neither the Dodgers nor Angels engaged the Padres on Gonzalez over the winter. The Chicago White Sox did, before they signed Adam Dunn, and the Chicago Cubs did too. But Hoyer got the deal he wanted from his former employers, the Boston Red Sox, a team with a payroll almost four times that of the Padres.

Three prospects, good ones, to help rebuild. Get younger, get cheaper, suffer a poor season for the promise of better days ahead.

It all appears to make sense, until you see the San Diego infield. Orlando Hudson plays second base and Jason Bartlett shortstop, each on a two-year contract, each on the wrong side of 30. Jorge Cantu and Brad Hawpe, each on his third team in two years, split time at first base.

Hoyer shrugs. Someone has to man the infield. Baseball America ranked the Padres' organizational talent 29th among the 30 major league clubs in 2006, '07 and '09. Hudson, Bartlett, Cantu and Hawpe aren't blocking any prospects.

"We need to create that wave of young talent," Hoyer said.

If and when they do, the Padres face a dilemma. They can't ride a wave of young talent and then crash, or so Moorad says.

"We believe the market has enough fragility to it that we can't build up a team and then tear it apart," Moorad said. "We can't have two- or three-year rebuilding cycles. We don't think this market will react well to it.

"It's a much different philosophy than Florida — go for it all, then tear it all apart."

Moorad said the Padres want to contend for a playoff spot in a good year, finish .500 in a bad one.

For a team with limited resources, that can be a delicate proposition. The Angels tried that in the early '90s, under the belief their fans would not support a rebuilding effort. So their fans got Hubie Brooks and Von Hayes, and five years of sustained mediocrity, before the Angels finally let Garret Anderson and Jim Edmonds and the rest of the kids play.

The Padres have one trick up their small-market sleeve. Petco Park is so pitcher-friendly that agents keep Hoyer on speed dial, for one park-aided wonder year in San Diego could get a pitcher a long-term contract — somewhere else.

"There's no question we'll get discounts on pitchers," Hoyer said, "guys willing to take a one-year contract and bounce back."

The Chargers are on a one-year deal with the city of San Diego, year after year, until 2020. Padres President Tom Garfinkel is not so sure his team would strike gold if the Chargers bolted, because the teams share many sponsors and the market is the fourth-smallest in the majors.

"We'd like the Chargers to stay," Garfinkel said. "We think it's good for the city."

The Chargers have a three-month window each year, starting on Feb. 1, in which they can opt out of their lease at Qualcomm Stadium.

By the time next February rolls around, we ought to know whether L.A. will build an NFL stadium, and perhaps whether the Chargers will play in it.

The "Beat L.A." chants can be pretty loud at Petco Park. Imagine the decibel level if we steal their football team.

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