Padres' woes may lessen Benes' trade-in value


May 09, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Philadelphia -- The first thing you need to know about San Diego Padres right-hander Andy Benes is that success is relative. He is one of the best young pitchers in baseball, and he has the numbers to disprove it.

That's the trouble with playing for a team at the south end of the standings. You can't help but trip over the bottom line, something that Benes has done repeatedly during the early weeks of the 1994 season.

He has lost five of his seven starts, even though he leads the National League with 52 strikeouts and leads the majors in rumored destinations. The Padres have sunk quickly into the NL West cellar, and -- it seems -- they are taking their brightest young star down with them.

"It's a situation where I can't evaluate my performance solely on whether I win or lose," Benes said. "I pitched 7 1/3 innings [in a recent start] and gave up two broken-bat singles, a bunt and a ground ball down the first base line and I lost, 2-1. I felt like I threw exceptionally well. I haven't been overly lucky when I've been out there, but if things even out, I'll be fine."

Things evened out last year. He won 15 games and lost 15 games, which -- from the standpoint of relative success -- was just this side of outstanding. The Padres won a total of 61 games in 1993 to finish 43 games out of first place in the NL West. They'll finish two places higher this season, but only because realignment took two teams out of the division.

Benes might be putting together a string of 20-win seasons in Toronto or some other baseball garden spot, but every day in San Diego erodes his potential career numbers, especially since the Padres disposed of several quality players during last year's infamous "fire sale."

There is no Fred McGriff to open up a close game with one big swing. No Gary Sheffield either. The Padres' cost-cutting binge stopped at Benes and four-time batting champion Tony Gwynn, but that has been a mixed blessing for the two who were left behind.

"I think anybody who plays this game wants the opportunity to win and to get the most out of their talents," Benes said. "You don't see too many MVP performances by guys on last-place teams. It can be done. Andre Dawson had that great season with the Cubs. But going out there in first place, it's just different than if you're 25 games out of first place."

The 26-year-old right-hander got a taste of that big-game atmosphere last year when he appeared in the All-Star Game at Camden Yards. The stands were packed. They always are for the midsummer classic. But Benes knew from his conversations with friend Ben McDonald that it was almost always like that at Oriole Park.

It is never like that at San Diego/Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Padres didn't draw particularly well even when they were fielding representative teams. Now, with the club looking up at the expansion Colorado Rockies, it is not a happy place.

"I think that's why I was so excited to pitch in the All-Star Game," he said. "The atmosphere. The excitement. We haven't had that in San Diego for a while. To be in that atmosphere. To have that adrenalin working. You realize it's like that in a lot of places all the time. I think everybody would like to go out there knowing that what they do is going to affect whether you win or lose the pennant."

Hence, the rumors. Benes is headed for Baltimore. He is going to be a Yankee. He is going to the Blue Jays. He is going as soon as the division races start shaking out and the July 31 trade deadline starts creeping up. The Padres deny this emphatically, but they can't stop people from assuming the obvious.

It isn't easy being baseball's most eligible pitcher. He will be eligible for free agency at the end of next season, so his name will remain prominent in trade speculation until he is re-signed, traded or enters the free market in November 1995.

"I try not to get real emotional about it, one way or the other," said Benes, who pitched a four-hitter Friday to beat the Rockies, 8-0. "If I had my heart set on staying in San Diego and then I got traded, it could be tough. And if I had my heart set on being traded and it didn't happen, that would be tough, too. I have to focus on what I'm doing on the field."

That's the key. The problem is finding a way to remain in a big-game frame of mind when there is little to play for.

"If you're a professional baseball player, it should be easy," said Gwynn, who has had to do that a lot longer than Benes. "It's actually easier, because nobody expects anything from you. The only pressure you feel is the pressure you put on yourself. It's an easy environment to go to work in."

Gwynn, who won one of his batting titles for a last-place club in 1987, acknowledges that it is a little different for a pitcher. Hitters can get results independent of the performance of the rest of the team. Pitchers must have offensive support to win.

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