Padres about front of jersey, not back
San Diego's big names are all gone, but that doesn't mean club can't keep on winning
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The San Diego Padres have never won a World Series or pitched a no-hitter, but they sure have a knack for churning out icons. Dave Winfield defined power and athleticism at San Diego Stadium before the "Bronx Zoo" phase of his career. Tony Gwynn won eight batting titles while laying claim to the title of "Mr. Padre," and Trevor Hoffman enhanced his legacy every time he hitched up his belt and left the bullpen to the accompaniment of "Hells Bells."
In recent years, Jake Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez attracted followings for different reasons. Padres fans embraced Peavy as the undersized righty with a big heart, and they came to love Gonzalez as the local kid who put up huge numbers in a man-sized ballpark, for the proverbial hometown discount.
Now they're all gone. Winfield is a senior advisor for the Padres and Gwynn is coaching baseball at San Diego State. They're both in Cooperstown, on plaques with Padres caps. Hoffman, who recently went to work in the Padres' front office, will have a plaque of his own in a few years. Peavy is pitching for the Chicago White Sox, and Gonzalez has moved on to a new, more affluent chapter of his career in Boston.
If Padres fans find this little game of icons-on-parade disheartening, they'll get some sympathy from closer Heath Bell. He was born in Oceanside, just north of the city, and he knows what it means to develop an attachment to a favorite player only to watch him leave town. When the Swinging Friar stands as the organizational symbol of continuity, it shows that the old "rooting for laundry" principle is alive and well in San Diego.
"When I was growing up, Steve Finley and Tony Gwynn were like your distant cousin," Bell said. "They were part of your family. They were out in the community doing this and that. They were 'our guys.' Nowadays guys are switching teams all the time, and they're not part of the family. It's like, 'Who's this distant cousin I've never seen before?"'
Does the turnover make for an identity crisis or a new marketing opportunity? That depends on your point of view.
After winning 90 games for only the fourth time in franchise history -- and falling short of the 2010 playoffs -- the Padres have entered a new phase. Post-Adrian Gonzalez, they're moving on with a mix of kids, some veteran position players who might just be passing through, and lots and lots of pitching.
They're about as nondescript as a 90-win team can get. Ryan Ludwick is the top returning power hitter from 2010, with 17 homers and 69 RBIs for the Cardinals and Padres. Orlando Hudson, the irrepressible "O-Dog," is with his fourth team in four seasons. Brad Hawpe was released by Colorado in August. And third baseman Chase Headley, outfielder Will Venable and catcher Nick Hundley are still making their way up in the world.
Given the composition of the roster, it's understandable that the Padres are preaching the mantra of togetherness over individuals. The cover of the team's 2011 media guide pictures a bat and ball, two Padres jerseys and a team cap. There's not a human being in sight.
If a team's bobblehead quotient provides insight into its marketing strategy, it's clear where the Padres are headed. Last year the team gave away bobble figurines for five players -- Headley, second baseman David Eckstein, starter Clayton Richard, shortstop Everth Cabrera and outfielder Kyle Blanks. This year the only uniformed Padre so honored will be Bud Black, the incumbent National League Manager of the Year.
"We talk a lot throughout the organization about 'the name on the front of the jersey,' not just the back," Padres CEO Jeff Moorad said in an e-mail. "It takes a team to win, not one star player, so there won't be a manufactured 'face of the franchise.' Players will emerge as fan favorites and leaders because of how they play and perform and how they act, not because they've been anointed by a team's marketing department.
"I do think that our team is made up of players who are good teammates, who have competitive fire, who play the game hard and who play to win every day. This year, you'll see athleticism and good pitching and defense. Hopefully, you'll see players enjoying playing the game they love, enjoying and appreciating their teammates, and enjoying success together."
Cynics might wonder if this is just a roundabout way of greasing the wheels to trade the team's stars once they outgrow the budget. The Padres view it more as good business and a sustainable long-term model for success.
Finding an identity
San Diego comes with its own unique challenges, as a lifestyle nirvana with lots of fun things to do besides watch a baseball game. In 2004, the year Petco Park debuted, the Padres drew 3 million fans for the only time in franchise history. Attendance gradually declined after that, until the Pads fell below 2 million in 2009.
At the end of the day, I really like it here. It's like home. I love this organization and this coaching staff. Sometimes at the end of the day you think, 'Man, doesn't that mean something?'" -- Padres closer Heath Bell
Last year the Padres ranked 18th in baseball with 2.1 million fans, but at least they're trending in the right direction. Their 11 percent increase over the previous season was the fourth-biggest in the majors. And a mid-February MLB report showed that the team had the highest new season-ticket growth in the industry.
As team mantras go, "Come Watch Us Lead The League In Holds!" doesn't exactly make your pulse race. But Petco Park isn't conducive to selling offense, so the Padres' new organizational "brand" is based on airtight defense, aggressive baserunning and winning games 3-2.
"We know how our park is," Black said. "We know our financial situation. We have to be known as a team that plays hard. We pitch. We play defense. We play a certain brand of baseball. We play the game right. We don't make mistakes or beat ourselves. You know that you're in for a fight every night."
In some respects, the situation in San Diego is similar to what the Astros are going through. For years, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were synonymous with baseball in Houston. Then they retired. Lance Berkman figured to carry on the legacy, but the Astros traded him to the Yankees last July. Now Drayton McLane Jr. is selling the club, and the Astros are in "Where do we go from here?" mode.
Considering all the minefields that can befall perceived "faces of the franchise," it's safer in the long run to promote the front of the jersey. Young players fail to live up to expectations, and even established players can get injured, regress or encounter off-the-field issues (this means you, Miguel Cabrera). And it's a fact of life that franchise favorites grow old eventually. In the case of Ozzie Smith in St. Louis, Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle and numerous others, the ending isn't always pretty. Stay tuned on Derek Jeter's future with the Yankees.
The converse is also true. The Cardinals didn't plan for Albert Pujols to arrive from the minors at age 21 with 15 at-bats above Double-A and win three MVP awards in his first 10 seasons. If Pujols leaves through free agency in November, St. Louis is in for some serious face-of-the-franchise withdrawal pains.
"It's great for the organization if you have that person," Black said. "I think back to my days in Kansas City and we had one [George Brett]. But it takes years to develop, and that person has to pass the test of time in a lot of areas. It's not only performance on the field, but who they are as a person off the field. It's character, integrity and all the things that a city can identify with. A lot of guys can't pass the mettle test. If you have it, great. Is it essential? No."
The next big face?
The Padres' NL West competitors reflect different approaches. The Rockies have invested more than $200 million in long-term deals for Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. The Dodgers would love for Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to emerge as franchise cornerstones, but they're works in progress. The Diamondbacks thought Justin Upton would be the guy by now, but he hasn't been ready to embrace the responsibility. As for the Giants, they derive their identity from Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and a dynamic homegrown pitching staff. But it wasn't until Cody Ross arrived from Florida and Aubrey Huff broke out his lucky thong that the Giants finally reached the promised land.
Even if the Padres don't have a larger-than-life player on the roster, could someone emerge as the new franchise face? A few candidates come to mind:
He is a quote machine and chews gum with reckless abandon. Plus, he has enough tattoos to appeal to the younger crowd and sufficient talent to make a bunch of All-Star teams. But Latos is still working to overcome a rap for immaturity that's been fueled by a silly feud with Giants fans. He is also 23 years old, and he has enough on his plate trying to come back strong after pitching a career-high 184 2/3 innings last year. It's probably in his best interests to just lay low and pitch for a while.
He's a solid citizen, with leadership skills and an unquestionable work ethic. Last year, Headley led all big league third basemen with 161 games and 1,407 innings played. But as every Padres hitter not named Adrian Gonzalez can attest, Petco Park has a way of swallowing up power and making offensive numbers look very ordinary. Headley's closest career Baseball-reference.com comparables are Lastings Milledge, Jim Gleeson and Willy Aybar. And he has a .790 OPS on the road, so it's not all about Petco.
The Padres have reason to hope that pitcher Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Reymond Fuentes live up to their potential as the return haul for Gonzalez. As a survivor of Hodgkin's lymphoma, Rizzo has an inspirational story to tell. Kelly, a former Tennessee quarterback recruit, has impressed the scouts with his athleticism, control and poise. But he's not the quintessential cheese-throwing staff ace. "He has to hit his spots, or he's going to get hit around," said a scout. "He came in with so much hype, people think he should be throwing 97. That's not his style."
From a fan's perspective, there's a lot to like about Bell beyond his 90.8 percent save conversion rate the past two seasons. He sprints in from the bullpen. He's no Adonis in uniform. And if you watch him mingle with crowds in spring training, it's clear he has a bond with the common man. If the King of Queens played Major League Baseball for a living, he'd be Heath Bell.
"That's just my personality," Bell said. "That's who I am. I always thought if I became a major league baseball player, I would talk to the fans. I always thought it was the coolest thing when a player did that to me or gave me a ball. I can't sign for everybody, but I try.
"At the end of the day, I really like it here. It's like home. I love this organization and this coaching staff. Sometimes at the end of the day you think, 'Man, doesn't that mean something?'"
Bell isn't complaining, mind you. He realizes that baseball is a business, and he's convinced that Moorad and general manager Jed Hoyer have the Padres headed in the right direction with a sound plan for the long haul. But Bell is in the final year of his contract and will be eligible for free agency in November, and it's hard to schedule a Heath Bell Bobblehead Night when he might be a former Padre by July. This is known in baseball as the Victor Martinez Principle.
"I would like to be here for multiple years," Bell said. "If the Lord blesses that way, the Lord blesses that way. If the Lord says, 'You're going somewhere else,' I'm going somewhere else. It's not in my hands, basically."
Continuity is a wonderful thing if you can swing it. In lieu of that, the Padres will have to settle for Plan B: Just win baseball games, and hope the rest takes care of itself.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
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