Padres eye playoffs for 2002 season

    After a remarkable 2001 season that ranks among the best in baseball history, the 2002 season has a very tough act to follow.

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    There probably won’t be another 73 home run season like Barry Bonds’ or a duplicate of the amazing 116 wins the Seattle Mariners compiled, but the competitive edge and talent that most teams boast should portend an entertaining and exciting season ahead. The Padres themselves possess these qualities and have a chance of qualifying for the postseason.

    Possibly the strongest team in Southern California, the Padres enter the 2002 season with high hopes and moderate expectations after posting a 79-83 record last year.

    Even with Tony Gwynn’s retirement and the tragic death of outfielder Mike Darr, the youthful exuberance of the team and solid core of players that general manager Kevin Towers has assembled for this season looks to be manager Bruce Bochy’s strongest lineup since the 1998 pennant-winning team.

    Leading the offensive charge once again will be first baseman Phil Nevin and right fielder Ryan Klesko. Nevin is coming off a monstrous 41 home run, 126 RBI season while sporting a solid .309 batting average. Meanwhile, Klesko will look to improve his 2001 season, which had him hitting 30 home runs and driving in a career-high 119 RBIs and scoring 105 runs.

    Left fielder Bubba Trammell also returns after posting career-high numbers last year with 25 homers and 92 RBIs, while Mark Kotsay will take center field once again after displaying impressive defensive skills and adequate offensive production in 2001.

    Former All-Star Ray Lankford will also vie for significant playing time, showing the incredible depth the Pads have in the outfield. When healthy, Lankford can produce 30 home runs and 90 RBIs in a season, making him a valuable player off the bench.

    Added into the mix this year is homegrown prospect third baseman Sean Burroughs, already a popular choice for this year’s National League Rookie of the Year. First hitting the national spotlight by leading his Long Beach Little League team to consecutive world championships, Burroughs has produced solid results during his three years in the minor leagues and seems poised to shine in the major league spotlight.

    While not a strong power hitter, Burroughs’ plate discipline and hitting prowess are similar to Gwynn’s. With unlimited offensive potential and strong defensive play, he could be a superstar in the making and showed a glimpse of his abilities during spring training with a .411 average.

    Other notables include returning shortstop D’Angelo Jimenez, catcher Wiki Gonzalez and second baseman Ramon Vazquez.

    Jimenez, acquired last year in a trade for pitcher Jay Witasick, is a former top prospect of the New York Yankees.

    Gonzalez shows signs of being a productive hitter and is slated as a full-time starter for the first time in his career. Vazquez replaces Damian Jackson and gets his first real shot to play at the major league level.

    Veterans Ron Gant, Trenidad Hubbard, Tom Lampkin and Deivi Cruz add reliable experience and depth to the Padres’ bench to help the younger players mature and to provide more leadership skills.

    While the offense looks impressive, the Padres’ pitching staff has some question marks. Pitching will largely determine how well the team plays this year, and while they lack starting experience, the potential and promise of this group of pitchers could lead to bigger things in years to come.

    The starting rotation begins the season with Kevin Jarvis, Bobby Jones, Brian Lawrence, Brian Tollberg and Brett Tomko.

    With promising youngster Adam Eaton out for the entire season due to reconstructive elbow surgery, the Pads will depend on this mix of young arms and experienced veterans to guide them.

    Jarvis led the team last year with 12 wins and a 4.79 ERA, and has started off well this year with Monday’s performance against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He scattered five hits over seven innings while giving up only two runs and striking out four in a 2-0 loss to superstar Arizona pitcher Randy Johnson.

    Lawrence will be a huge key to the Padres’ success. He posted impressive stats last year as a starter, finishing the season with 15 starts to earn him a 5-5 record and a notable 3.45 ERA. Expectations are high for Lawrence to be a top-line starter for the Padres this year.

    Jones and Tomko are both veterans with playoff experience and have been consistent since the beginning of their careers.

    Tollberg has shown the potential to be a successful starting pitcher in the majors, but a finger injury slowed his progress last year. Even so, he finished the season with a 10-4 record and sufficient 4.30 ERA.

    The bullpen has been revamped with the addition of two relief pitchers in Steve Reed and Alan Embree.

    Reed split time in Cleveland and Atlanta last year and posted a solid 3.55 ERA while holding opponents to a measly .236 average.

    Embree had a shaky 2001 season but is only two years removed from a career-best 22 holds and 3.35 ERA in 1999 and had an excellent spring training with a 3.18 ERA in 11 games.

    They add valuable depth to a bullpen that also features lefty Jose Nunez and former starter Jason Middlebrook.

    Closing duties are once again in the hands of one of the most dominating closers in baseball today: Trevor Hoffman. With his deadly changeup, Hoffman converted 43 of 46 save opportunities last year and has had at least 31 saves per year over the last seven years. He is simply the backbone of the Padres’ pitching staff .

    Despite its 1-2 start to this season, the future is very promising for the Padres organization.

    The Padres have built a competitive team on a limited payroll and have an excellent chance to finish above .500 for the first time since ’98.

    By running a minor-league system filled with top-level talent such as the pitching trio of Jake Peavy, Dennis Tankersley and Mark Phillips, in addition to the new downtown ballpark slated to open in 2004, the Padres are hoping to follow a structure similar to the Oakland Athletics as a strong small-market contender for a World Series ring.

    Whether the Padres contend this season or not, the road to success is hopeful. Regardless, the 2002 season should be quite exciting.

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