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Padres give Payton a two-year deal

SAN DIEGO -- Jay Payton landed a big piece of real estate in
downtown San Diego on Tuesday -- center field at Petco Park.

Payton agreed to a $5.5 million, two-year contract with the San Diego Padres, who are building toward the April opening of their
$458 million ballpark.

Payton joined the Padres on the same day they decided not to
trade for Pittsburgh catcher Jason Kendall, feeling they'd be
hamstrung by the big salaries toward the end of his long contract.

After adding All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez, left-hander David Wells and infielder Jeff Cirillo, general manager Kevin Towers
thought Payton was the final player needed to make the Padres
competitive after five straight losing seasons.

"I've always been a big Jay Payton fan, going back to my
scouting days," Towers said. "I turned him in higher than Nomar Garciaparra when they were at Georgia Tech. He was a better hitter then."

Payton hasn't had quite the career that Garciaparra has, but the
Padres feel he'll be perfect for Petco's spacious outfield. The
deepest part of the park is in right-center.

"I actually got to check it out," Payton said during a
conference call. "I got on the Internet and saw there's a point in
right-center that goes out to 411. I know I'll do some running.
I've been preparing for it. I've been running on the track, my legs
are in shape and I'm ready to go."

The Padres made a run at Mike Cameron before he signed with the
New York Mets.

"Payton is the only other guy we could see playing in center
field and improving ourselves offensively and defensively," Towers
said. "We were looking for somebody who can go get the ball. He's
been a solid to better-than-average center fielder in the past."

Payton batted .302 last year for the Colorado Rockies. What the
Padres liked best was that he hit 15 of his 28 home runs and half
of his 32 doubles away from Coors Field.

With the addition of Payton, the Padres have five players in
their lineup capable of hitting 20 or more homers -- the others are
Brian Giles, Phil Nevin, Ryan Klesko and Hernandez.

Payton will make $1.5 million this year, $3.5 million in 2005
and the Padres have a $4 million option for 2006 with a $500,000
buyout. San Diego's payroll is now between $55 million and $60
million.

After finishing with the NL's worst record last year, the Padres
have been the busiest team in the NL West this offseason.

"We should have been the most active," Towers said. "We were
in last place and had the worst record in the division four of the
last five years.''

Actually it was three times in five years, but the point is, the
Padres haven't been competitive since reaching the World Series in
1998.

"This team should contend," Towers said.

Payton agrees.

"I love the city, I love the weather, and with the new ballpark
and the moves they've made this offseason, there's no reason
whatever that this team can't compete for the NL West title."