In weak, weak West, Padres not a wild pick

ON BASEBALL

April 04, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

The San Diego Padres had the worst record in the National League last year, and their biggest offseason acquisition - both literally and figuratively - was injury-prone starting pitcher David Wells, so who would be crazy enough to pick them to reach the postseason?

Just some Schmuck.

Don't laugh. The NL West is so weak this year that any of the five so-so teams in the division can dream of getting thrashed by the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs or Houton Astros in the first round of the playoffs.

The Padres won only 64 games in 2003, but they have far more offensive clout than the Los Angeles Dodgers and should narrow the wide ERA gap that separated them last year from the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks - all of whom suffered significant personnel losses over the winter.

There isn't a lot of star power in the starting rotation, but the three twentysomething pitchers who will work alongside Wells and veteran Sterling Hitchcock all pitched better than their win-loss records a year ago and all have a chance to have breakout seasons. If a couple of them pop and the Padres adjust quickly to brand-new Petco Field, it could be an exciting year.

Don't forget where you heard it.

Jinx vs. jinx

The Cubs already have to feel jinxed after what happened to them in the National League Championship Series last year, but they also have to deal with the famous Sports Illustrated jinx.

The magazine has picked the Cubs to win the World Series this year and headlined its baseball issue "Hell Freezes Over."

"I wouldn't mind if hell freezes over," said manager Dusty Baker. "That means I have a better chance to get into heaven."

Good news, bad news

Chicago White Sox sluggers Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas have been red hot since Thomas volunteered to move into the cleanup spot behind Ordonez. Ordonez had nine hits in his first 17 at-bats (.529) in the third slot, and Thomas had five hits and six RBIs in his first eight at-bats hitting fourth.

But, alas, Thomas missed much of the final week of spring training with a sore shoulder.

Good last impression

Diamondbacks rookie Casey Daigle had one more chance to prove he deserved a place in the regular-season starting rotation, and he didn't shrink from the challenge.

Daigle pitched an impressive six innings against the Texas Rangers Wednesday, giving up a run on two hits, and garnished the outing with a 420-foot home run. It was such a complete performance that someone asked general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. if Daigle could have done anything more to impress the people who hold his baseball future in their hands. "Stolen a base, maybe," Garagiola replied.

Defensive adjustment

Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez is a solid defensive outfielder, but manager Bob Brenly has told him he may have to replace him in left field in the late innings of close games.

The reason: Gonzalez has a partially torn elbow ligament, which he is trying to rehab without surgery, and his throwing arm has been erratic this spring.

"It's not meant to embarrass him or show him up," Brenly said. "It's just what we need to do as a team to put our best defensive ballclub on the field late in the ballgame. And he understands that."

It's certainly not something the D'backs want to do. Gonzalez has averaged 34 home runs and 115 RBIs over the past five years, so it will be a big offensive sacrifice to take his bat out of the lineup in a game that could go extra innings.

Bad blood

The Marlins have complained to baseball's central office about the number of times Florida hitters have been hit by Montreal Expos pitchers over the past year or so.

The relationship between the two franchises has been dicey since Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria sold the Expos to Major League Baseball and bought the Marlins. It got worse when Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell was hit twice in an exhibition game on Tuesday. Lowell missed the final month of last season after getting hit on the hand by Expos pitcher Hector Almonte, so the defending world champions were understandably aggrieved, and both benches emptied after Lowell was hit the second time.

They won't have much time to cool off. The developing rivalry will be renewed Tuesday, when the Marlins open the regular season against the Expos at Pro Player Stadium.

Tough call

If there was any doubt that the Anaheim Angels are focused on winning the American League West at any cost, consider Mike Scioscia's decision to make Aaron Sele one of the highest-paid long relievers in the history of the sport. Sele, who is guaranteed $8.5 million this year, will open the season in the bullpen if the Angels are unable to trade him. Ramon Ortiz won the battle for the final opening in the regular-season rotation.

Scioscia called it the toughest decision of his managerial career, but he can't really complain. He closed out spring training with six healthy, viable starting pitchers. How many other managers would happily trade places with him?

A question of character

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