Towers had need, went out and found it
San Diego GM was able to add speed to key positions
SAN DIEGO -- It was during Interleague Play in 2004 when San Diego general manager Kevin Towers caught a glimpse of the future, or, at the very least, watched in wonder the kind of team he would like to preside over some day.
"We were playing Tampa Bay and they weren't a very good team back then, but they had Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford in the outfield and we couldn't get a ball to get down in the gaps at all," Towers said. "And on the bases, they took extra bases and put a lot of pressure on us."
The Devil Rays, as they were called at the time, lost 91 games that season but Towers admired the athleticism and speed, something his team lacked with Ramon Hernandez and Phil Nevin clogging the bases.
For the first time since PETCO Park opened in 2004, Towers has the kind of athleticism and speed he's long coveted, spearheaded but certainly not limited to 22-year-old rookie shortstop Everth Cabrera, who leads the Padres with 24 stolen bases.
It's not just Cabrera, though. Chase Headley has 10 stolen bases as does Tony Gwynn. But speed is showing up everywhere.
"Looking at our team, we need to have some speed. The last four or five years, we have been a station-to-station club," Towers said. "We'd clog the basepaths and we had a hard time scoring unless we were hitting doubles and home runs.
"Now, though, we have got enough speed throughout our lineup ... even guys who aren't speed demons, can score on a single from second base. Two or three years ago, we had trouble doing that."
The Padres, who begin their final homestand of the season on Tuesday against the Dodgers, have more than doubled (79) their stolen-base total from a year ago (36), though that significant bump only tells part of the story.
Consider what Cabrera has done at shortstop, the balls he has gotten to, balls that could have easily ended up in the outfield instead of Adrian Gonzalez's glove. Or what about the speed in the outfield with Tony Gwynn, the athleticism of Will Venable?
That speed has also shown up in regard to taking an extra base on a hit or when a throw goes home instead of being cut off by an infielder, in many cases setting up another run.
This is the kind of team Towers wants moving forward. That doesn't mean first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, hardly fleet afoot, is headed elsewhere. It means that Towers is placing a premium on athleticism.
"I think this ballclub fits PETCO probably better than any club we've had," Towers said. "To me, Tony Gwynn Sr. would have been perfect in his prime at PETCO. It's someone who has the ability to draw a walk, someone who can steal a base, a contact hitter, a gap-to-gap hitter.
"I think we have more hitters like that now that fit that mold, instead of someone who is a pull-type hitter."
Cabrera's footprints, if you will, can be found everywhere this season. Take a 4-2 victory at PETCO Park on Aug. 3 over the Braves. With the Padres up 3-2 in the seventh inning, Cabrera singles, steals second, steals third and scores an insurance run on an RBI single by Oscar Salazar.
"Speed is exciting and it shows up on both sides of the field. If you've got someone like Cabrera and he gets on first base, the pitcher, his focus is now not toward the hitter, but the baserunner," Towers said.
"The infielders, how they defend you, is different. Plus sometimes it gives your hitters better pitches to hit. It's a different way of scoring runs. To me it's as exciting, a bunt single, stolen base, maybe bunting a guy over, a fly ball and scoring a run."
Towers and manager Bud Black believe there's such a thing as a PETCO Park player. If so, he might look a lot like Cabrera. But he might also look like Venable, or Gwynn or a catcher like Nick Hundley who runs well, or even Kyle Blanks, who moved well in the outfield before being injured in August.
"To me, where speed really shows up is late in ballgames. The eighth or ninth inning and you have a guy like Cabrera gets on," Towers said. "It can change the whole game. It's almost more dangerous than the one power hitter.
"The speed guys are less prone to the strikeout. They put the ball in play. They put a lot of pressure on the opposing team late in the ballgame."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.