A simple decision

A simple decision

Hall of Fame credentials. A looping bat that can hit the ball out of any park. Mike Piazza has already hit the ball out of one of the toughest parks in the league and carries the big stick to PETCO.

Signing Mike Piazza for a $2 million minimum -- against a $2.75 million maximum -- was a no-brainer for Padres general manager Kevin Towers.

"The risk/reward was overwhelming," said Towers. "If he produces, it's one of the great bargains we've ever made. I compare getting Mike to signing Rickey Henderson before 1996. Rickey became the missing link on a club that won the division and set the stage for 1998.

"Players like that can push you over the top."

If it works ... the way it did in 1996.

But there are some bigger questions facing Piazza. Productive, 37-year-old front-line catchers are few and far between. And Piazza's numbers have slipped noticeably in recent seasons.

Piazza has a career average of .311 with 397 homers. But he last topped 30 homers in 2002. And over the past two seasons, he has averaged .260 with 19.5 homers and 58 RBIs.

Piazza has told the Padres he can catch at least 80 games. The Padres are looking for him to play more than 100 games -- most as a catcher but also as a first baseman against tougher left-handed pitchers and as the designated hitter in the nine interleague road games.

Piazza is also looking to top 100 games. That is where his incentive bonuses begin to kick in.

"We're going to play Mike as much as we can," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy, who expects Piazza to be his primary cleanup hitter.

"Mike gives us a right-handed power threat in the middle of our lineup," said Towers. "We didn't have a proven cleanup hitter. And his strength (right-handed power) plays well to Petco Park. I think he helps make us a contender. I am excited."

But the optimism is tempered by reality.

Teams that want to run on Piazza will run. Last season, he threw out only 10 of the 92 runners who tested his arm. Over his career, Piazza has never been a good thrower. More than 1,300 runners have stolen bases against him, and his career success rate against runners is only 24 percent.

The arm is weak. And the knees?

"It's always a question with any player that age of what he can still physically do," said Bochy. "I think it's good. The most important thing for a catcher is how he handles the pitching staff. Mike has always been a hard worker behind the plate and has been a good handler of pitchers.

"To me, too much is made of a catcher's ability to throw out runners."

So if Piazza can stoop and catch and hit, the Padres will live with the known weakness of his arm. But can he stoop and catch and hit as much as the Padres expect him to stoop and catch and hit?

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