Headley on the outside looking in

Chase Headley

The Padres came to spring training desperately needing a left fielder. With a week to go to Opening Day, they need a left fielder and a center fielder. Yet, the hottest-hitting outfielder in camp won't make the team.

Still, the Padres look to be one of four contenders in the National League West if for no other reason than a Jake Peavy-paced pitching staff that led the league in ERA (3.68) last season.

Peavy, Chris Young and the ageless Greg Maddux former a fine trio at the front end of the rotation. The back end could be just as formidable if left-hander Randy Wolf and right-hander Mark Prior both rebound from shoulder surgery. Wolf is ready to start the season. Prior sys he'll be ready by mid-May.

Behind the rotation is a bullpen paced by all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman and setup man Heath Bell. OK, Hoffman failed to hold leads in two of the Padres' final three games of 2007, costing them a third consecutive playoff berth. Historically, no one has bounced back better than Hoffman -- although this could be the ultimate test for the 40-year-old who also had elbow surgery (to remove a bone spur and particles) for the first time last fall.

Runs, however, could be hard to come by, particularly at Petco Park, where the Padres hit only .235 and scored four runs a game last season.

Yes, there are hitters on this team.

The 4-5 combination of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (30 homers, 100 RBIs last year) and shortstop Khalil Greene (27-97) provide plenty of production.

And right fielder Brian Giles looks in excellent condition following offseason microfracture surgery on his right knee.

Ninety-nine of the Padres' 171 homers were hit on the road last year, including 35 of those hit by Greene and Gonzalez.

"Offensively, our production is as good as almost anyone on the road," Gonzalez said. "It's been proven that Petco Park is a tough place to hit."

Which is why the Padres concentrate on pitching and defense. They were 47-34 at home last season because the staff ERA at Petco Park was 3.02. Only unanimous Cy Young Award winner Peavy (10-1, 2.16 ERA) had better numbers on the road.

But the defense is going to take a hit if Jim Edmonds, 37, isn't in center. Aside from Edmonds, whose activity and production has slipped each of the past four seasons, the Padres have no one to play center on an everyday basis.

And on March 6, Edmonds, who played only 227 games the past two seasons in St. Louis due to a variety of physical problems, went down with a strained calf muscle. He hasn't played since.

The Padres are now contemplating opening the season without Edmonds, which would put -- pending a late trade -- Scott Hairston in center and Jody Gerut in left. Hairston came to spring penciled into the left field slot. Gerut came to spring training as a non-roster player after having missed almost all of the past two seasons with knee injuries.

If spring numbers alone dictated the lineup, Chase Headley would be in left come Opening Day. But the Padres had a pair of concerns about the 23-year-old who was the MVP of the Texas League last season: he would have skipped Triple-A entirely while transitioning from third base to left field -- a spot where he had never played before this spring. The Padres want Headley to open the season in Portland, where continued success could trigger an early-season promotion.

With Tad Iguchi apparently caretaking second base for prospect Matt Antonelli, and with Kevin Kouzmanoff blossoming at third last season after a slow start (he hit .305 following his .108 start through 74 at-bats), the infield is set.

The catchers and pitchers must do a better job of slowing opposing running games. Josh Bard and Michael Barrett threw out only 17 of 161 runners last year. No such problems await opposing catchers. The Padres are one of the slower teams in the major leagues.

On paper, the Padres appear to be the fourth team in a four-way battle for the National League West race. But they have yet to have a losing record in four seasons at Petco Park. They've won the National League West with less.

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