Who can be center field?
The Padres needed a center fielder. The Padres, if you want to get right down to it, have needed a center fielder for years. They had Steve Finley back in the late '90s, and Mark Kotsay for a couple of seasons a few years ago, and they tried Jay Payton for awhile, and Dave Roberts. They thought for a bit that they had finally found a long-term solution with Mike Cameron. But Cameron and the Padres couldn't agree on a contract extension last winter, and he ended up signing with the Brewers.
So, in December, the Padres traded for St. Louis' Jim Edmonds who, even at 37 years old, is still capable of playing center. At least when he's healthy. And there's the problem.
Edmonds has a strained muscle in his calf that has landed him on the 15-day disabled list and put the Padres, like a lot of teams early this season, in an immediate scramble mode. Scott Hairston, a 27-year-old former infielder who has played all of two games as a center fielder in the pros, is the man in the middle of the San Diego outfield for the next several nights.
Compared to many teams, the Padres aren't in terrible shape, injury-wise. But putting a veritable outfield rookie in the spacious green of Petco Park is not exactly how the Padres penciled in their Opening Day lineup weeks ago. Once Edwards went down, though, the team simply didn't have a whole lot of other choices.
"You just don't find a lot of good center fielders. They're just not out there. It's a rare animal to find," says Bud Black, the Padres' manager. "We feel with Scott, he does have some centerfield experience, and the way he's handled it so far this spring, he'll be fine, in the short term, until Jim comes back."
Hairston landed with the Padres in a trade with the Diamondbacks last July and made an immediate impact at the plate, smacking a couple of walkoff homers. On Aug. 3, as much of the country watched the Giants' Barry Bonds try to match Hank Aaron's mark for most home runs in a career, Hairston hit a game-trying three-run homer against the Giants in the eighth and a game-winning solo shot in the 10th. Hairston cranked eight homers in 31 games for the Padres, playing mostly in left field.
That bat was going to be hard to ignore this season but, to their credit, the Padres also paid attention to the defense. In fact, they saw this whole scenario unfolding. Knowing Edmonds' health limitations (he played in only 117 games last season, and only 110 the year before), the Padres invited Hairston and several other players to Petco Park in January to go through some outfield drills. Just in case.
"It was good seeing the balls in the stadium there. Running the balls down in the gaps. Communicating with the left fielder and the right fielder. We did a lot of that," Hairston says. "I feel comfortable in centerfield now. I think it helped that, at the start of spring training, I was taking a lot of balls out there. And it helps getting the reps in games."
Hairston has good speed, and Black says he like the jumps that his outfielder gets on balls and the routes he takes. But his arm strength is limited, a weakness that Hairston attempts to negate by charging the ball and taking it earlier than many center fielders do. "I want to play an aggressive outfield," he says.
The beginning of this season is extra important for the Padres because of how last season ended. The Padres had a real chance at winning the National League West until they lost the final two games of the season in Milwaukee. And when they dropped a one-game playoff to the eventual NL champion Rockies in Denver, the Padres missed the postseason altogether. Closer Trevor Hoffman blew saves in two of those last three games but, in a lot of ways, the Padres were in trouble long before the usually reliable Hoffman took the ball.
With a week left in the season, Cameron tore a ligament in his thumb when left fielder Milton Bradley accidentally stepped on him as the two chased down a ball in the outfield. Later that game, Bradley ripped up his knee in a bizarre confrontation with an umpire at first base. Both players missed the final week. The Padres finished the season with Hairston in left and Brady Clark in center.
That late-season bad luck is exactly the kind of thing that could stay with a team, though the Padres quickly shoot down any such talk.
"I don't think it's as bad as it's made out to be," says the team's general manager, Kevin Towers. "We didn't collapse. We were just outmanned."
Says Hairston: "That's what the off season is for. To get all the bad out. To get it out of your head."