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11/07/10 12:01 AM ET

Padres to carefully walk free-agency tightrope

SAN DIEGO -- Eight Padres who were a part of a 90-win team in 2009 are now free agents, including pitcher Jon Garland, who won 14 games.

These players join 160-plus free agents on the open market, where negotiations can begin between the players and the 30 clubs looking for help for 2011.

Free agency is a fickle thing for the Padres, who scored with three pivotal signings last winter that helped them win 90 games in the regular season.

The late additions of Garland, utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. and catcher Yorvit Torrealba -- all agreed to deals after Jan. 18 -- proved that a small-market team can indeed have success in free agency.

But it's also a cautionary tale -- in that the margin for error for a team like the Padres, who will have a budget of about $40 million next season, allows absolutely no wiggle room when it comes to spending on talent.

And, of course, landing the big fish in free agency isn't going to happen here -- at least not soon. So late signings could again be the norm for the Padres, unless they choose to upgrade through trades.

"The truth is, free agency, we're always going to be somewhat limited," Padres general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We are going to have our wish list, but we have to be aware guys are going to be picked off that wish list pretty easily.

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"If someone wants to give someone a deal for three years and $30 million, we're not going to be able to compete."

The good news is the Padres are not tied to any bad contracts, either, in terms of dollars or length. That kind of flexibility can help them this offseason as they pursue pieces, either through trades or free agency.

Hoyer, heading into his second offseason with the Padres, also has the benefit of having no real tough decisions to make with players on the current roster. The team picked up All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez's bargain $6.2 million salary Tuesday, but passed on pitcher Chris Young's $8.5 million club option Wednesday.

A handful of players who are arbitration-eligible, notably All-Star closer Heath Bell, left fielder Ryan Ludwick and eighth-inning specialist Mike Adams, are due raises -- and in the case of Bell, it figures to be a substantial raise over the $4 million he made last season.

The priority of the offseason for Hoyer will be offense, finding table-setters for the order who can get on base for Gonzalez and Ludwick. San Diego leadoff hitters in 2010 had a .237 average and a .306 on-base percentage.

"One of the things we didn't do well is get on base before Adrian or whoever was batting fourth," Hoyer said. "It was a frustrating thing [manager Bud Black] and I talked about all the time.

"We could never find the right leadoff guy and we didn't get on base that well out of the two-hole. That was a constant frustration all year. We never found the guy to do that job. The best protection for a guy like Adrian is finding a guy to get on base, not having a guy [hit] behind him. We've got to do a better job of that."

Catcher Yorvit Torrealba declined his mutual option Tuesday and became a free agent. The Padres expected this, though they would still like to have Torrealba come back in 2011.

Contract issues
Free agents: RHP Kevin Correia, INF Jerry Hairston Jr., SS Miguel Tejada, OF Matt Stairs, 2B David Eckstein, C Yorvit Torrealba, SP Jon Garland, SP Chris Young.

Eligible for arbitration: RHP Tim Stauffer, RHP Edward Mujica, OF Tony Gwynn, OF Chris Denorfia, RHP Mike Adams, RHP Heath Bell, OF Scott Hairston and OF Ryan Ludwick.

Non-tender possibilities: Scott Hairston, very small chance Gwynn is non-tendered.

Areas of need
Center fielder: With Will Venable set to play in right field and Ludwick moving from right to left field, the Padres want to land an everyday center fielder this winter. Gwynn is a UZR-machine and a plus-defender, but his offense is lacking. The Padres covet a top-of-the-order hitter, a table-setter for Gonzalez and Ludwick. Could they find a center fielder and table-setter in one player?

Starting pitching: The Padres feel good about the trio of Clayton Richard, Mat Latos and Stauffer. Rookie southpaw Cory Luebke should challenge for a spot at the back end of the rotation. What the Padres will need is someone to do what Garland did for them in 2010 -- be an innings-eater. The Padres won't likely spend what it would cost to keep Garland ($6.75 million) for a No. 3 or 4 starter.

Middle infield: Eckstein is a free agent and won't likely return. Tejada, who was very good after joining the team in July, is also a free agent. The Padres still don't know what kind of player Everth Cabrera will be and Jerry Hairston Jr., who played a lot of shortstop when Cabrera was hurt, is a free agent. Simply put, the Padres need help here, either at second base, shortstop or both. They could make a run at Tejada, but won't spend the $6 million he earned in 2010.

2011 payroll
The Padres won 90 games with the second-lowest payroll in the Major Leagues in 2010. That payroll is expected to increase -- Hoyer even said as much publicly last month -- but likely won't be much higher than $40 million. That said, without any bad contracts on the books, the Padres can and will be active. It also means that, unlike other teams with bigger payrolls, the Padres really can't afford to miss on trades or free-agent acquisitions.

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.