Padres' Spring Training shortstop clash heats up

David Wells, Ramon Hernandez, Jay Payton, Terence Long, Ismael Valdes, and Jeff Cirillo, just to name a few. The Padres have brought in a multitude of experienced players to try to go from worst to first and keep pace with the perennial division-winning Giants and the high-spending Dodgers. Another addition, Rey Ordoñez, would have been the man for the Padres a few years ago. The battle this season involves the Mets' former three-time gold glove shortstop and homegrown talent Khalil Greene.

The incumbent, Ramon Vazquez, is expected to assume the role of utility infielder due to his platoon status earned in his repeated failure to handle left-handed pitching.

The Padres recently signed Jose Nieves as an insurance policy and probable starting shortstop on the AAA Portland squad. With the influx of proven veterans to the squad, manager Bruce Bochy expects to compete for the division title and said he is "not in the business of developing players this year." This doesn't bode well for Khalil Greene unless he shows he belongs.

While Rey Ordoñez has lost his aura of the flashy, fun-loving fielder, he's looking to prove that he's still got starting shortstop years left in him. Greene believes the time has come for him to be the Padres everyday shortstop, after jetting up their minor league system. Bochy recently declared that the job is up for competition, although going into last off-season Greene appeared to have the upper hand. The Padres' first-round pick in the 2002 draft, Greene played 46 games for single-A Lake Elsinore in 2002, before ascending from AA to AAA Portland in 2003, only one year removed from earning the Golden Spikes award at Clemson as the best player in college baseball. He is reputed to have an unfailing work ethic and steady but unspectacular defense, an obvious contrast to Ordoñez's qualities. Ordoñez, who has been slowed by injuries in recent year, may still make his customary spectacular plays in the field, but he's lost some of his range and throwing accuracy. Defense remains his claim to fame, thus if he cannot surpass Greene in that department, he will certainly be outclassed by Greene's superior hitting ability.

Even if Greene happens to earn the starting nod this Spring, Bochy may fear another episode of rushing youngsters into the spotlight too swiftly, as occurred with Sean Burroughs and Xavier Nady. Both players shot up the minors as Greene has, and appeared to be ready to perform in the majors—but the promotions proved to be premature as they were sent back down to Portland to gain necessary experience. Greene, however, carries considerably inferior expectations than Burroughs did. The Padres can lessen the pressure on Greene by sticking him into the eighth spot in the lineup, where he can work on his plate coverage, pitch recognition and power numbers—his perceived offensive weaknesses. Despite a modest average of .288 and 10 homeruns in AAA last season, the quiet Greene, known to keep in tip-top shape, should continue to improve with his first-rate baseball knowledge and lack of significant injury problems. While his defense may not be dazzling, Greene will provide a strong arm and good hands, along with better range and positioning than either Ordoñez or Vazquez.

If Greene does not win the starting job, he should go back to Portland to play everyday. The Padres likely recognize that the only way they keep Ordoñez is if he becomes the opening day starter. Presumed to have a big head and throw a fit when lifted for a pinch hitter, Ordoñez will either crack the starting lineup or be released and try to find another taker. The signing of Nieves confirms that the Padres know Ordoñez will not be open to the idea of starting in AAA. At 33, Ordoñez's durability as a starter is a definite question mark, coming off season-ending surgery last season. Supporters will point to his clutch hitting, base running prowess, and ability to put the ball in play, as well as his previously mentioned slick fielding. Ordoñez may also hold an advantage since Bochy has been known to like his veterans, especially this season where Ordoñez could supply great defense up the middle for the Padres young pitchers. Although Greene is not the natural talent Ordoñez is, this fact probably helps him work harder than everyone else to maximize his tools. Ordoñez has never had to deal with speculation of being a relentless hard worker.

With Vazquez tabbed as the preliminary backup shortstop, the Padres seem to have given up on the hope he would make the necessary adjustments to hit lefties and stay in the majors, as Ryan Klesko did. The sure-handed Vazquez does not possess much range, but the Padres might try him in some other spots, such as centerfield. If Greene demonstrates the need for further seasoning in the minors, Vazquez can hold the fort until Greene appears ready for the Big Show. But if Ordoñez shows he can swing the lumber and provide consistent defense, he deserves to acquire starting chores. Subsequently, Greene should return to everyday experience in Portland—rushing him to the majors will do more harm than good. As Bochy recently declared: "If anyone needs at-bats, they can get them at Triple-A."

Despite Bochy's favorable view of established players, Greene's consistent play and workmanlike attitude should earn him opening day starting duties. Bochy, his team and Padres fans figure to enjoy the three-way Spring Training battle and allow the best man to win.

Notes:Through Wednesday, both Greene and Ordonez have played in eight games apiece. Greene is batting .348 with eight hits in 23 at bats. He has driven in eight with two extra base hits, a triple and home run. He has also scored five times. Rey Ordonez is batting .304 with seven hits in 23 at bats. He has driven in five with three extra base hits, all doubles. He has also scored two runs.

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