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04/01/12 4:42 PM ET

Headley well suited to hit third for Padres

PEORIA, Ariz. -- From Chase Headley's perspective, up close and personal, if the Padres were serious National League West title contenders as recently as 2010, why can't it happen again two years later?

Granted, Adrian Gonzalez and Mat Latos are significant departures, but a whole cast of youthful talent has matured.

"A lot of guys in this clubhouse have experienced it," said Headley, San Diego's third baseman and the third hitter in manager Bud Black's order. "They know what it takes, the type of energy we're going to have to bring every day.

"You have to be locked in day in and day out -- focused and intense. You have to out-execute the other team. It's been that way ever since I've been here, and I don't think it's going to change any time in the future. It's not like we're going to lure big-time free-agent hitters."

The climate is the nation's best, the setting gorgeous, but the Padres never will be a preferred destination of prime-time sluggers. The payroll is among the lowest, and Petco Park, with its seemingly endless gaps, is where doubles, triples and homers go to a quiet death.

A Padres hitter, if he's not Gonzalez, suffers at home. It's one thing to say you'll adapt and bash line drives. It's something else to avoid losing sleep over 380-foot drives that die in gloves under the Pacific marine layer.

While he maintains he doesn't dwell on Petco's impact, Headley's career splits are revealing: .303 average, .441 slugging on the road; .229 and .336, respectively, at home.

"Most guys -- myself included -- struggle there," former Padres outfielder Ryan Ludwick, now with the Reds, said. "Every good ball that I hit to right-center that I thought had a chance [to go out] was an out."

A career .261 hitter, slugging .455, Ludwick plunged to .218 and .361 in 362 Petco at-bats.

Gonzalez was the one power hitter who managed to avoid beating himself up mentally at Petco before relocating to Boston and cozy Fenway Park.

Though styled differently than his former teammate, Headley, at 27, profiles as an ideal No. 3 hitter at Petco. He slashes bullets and takes flight with a good set of wheels, keeping the action moving.

"You look at Chase, what he's done the last three years," Black said, "he's been consistent, given good at-bats, played solid baseball. He's a very steady player. For our guys, that's needed.'

Ludwick calls Headley "extremely underrated, a really good player."

Headley and Co. know they need to bunch hits and run the bases with intelligent aggression to generate offense. Carlos Quentin will bring serious pop when he returns, presumably around mid-April, but three-run homers figure to be relatively rare.

"We're going to play tight games with our ballpark," Headley said. "The National League West is a pitching-based division. You know you're going to play tight games.

"What we need to do is obvious: win more close games. We played a lot of close games last year and couldn't wind up on the winning side enough. When you play like we do, you don't have a lot of margin for error."

The Padres' staff owned the third-best team earned run average in the NL in 2011 at 3.42. They sent Latos to the Reds for four players, one of whom -- Edinson Volquez -- will start Opening Day against the Dodgers.

A projected rotation of Volquez, Cory Luebke, Tim Stauffer, Clayton Richard and Dustin Moseley will benefit from a terrific defense. The Padres' .985 fielding percentage was tied for fourth-best in the league, and the 36 runs they saved were surpassed by only four teams in the Majors.

Under Black's steady hand, the Padres performed at a high level in all areas except offense. A numbing lack of production was largely responsible for a 71-91 record.

Only the Mariners (.292) and Giants (.303) had lower on-base percentages than San Diego's .305. Only Seattle had lower slugging and batting marks. The Padres hit .237 and slugged .349.

In spite of their difficulties getting to first base, the Padres -- responding to coach Dave Roberts' astute direction -- led the Majors with 170 steals. Their 79 percent success rate was surpassed only by the Phillies' 80 percent.

The Padres manufactured, with their legs and situational hitting, 165 runs -- sixth most in the league, and the highest percentage of runs scored by far.

Cameron Maybin, with 32, tied for third in the league in manufactured runs. Jason Bartlett (18), Will Venable (16) and Orlando Hudson (15) also were efficient.

Management is shaping the right personnel -- quality athletes -- for their park. Headley, averaging 13 steals the past three years with an 81 percent success rate, fits right in.

"I feel ready to go," Headley said. "The last week of Spring Training, you just want to get out there and get it started. I feel pretty comfortable with what I'm trying to do.

"I'm a guy who can hit for a pretty good average and hit for some power, some doubles. I'm not going to try to hit 30 home runs. I'm not really in a place to do that. I like hitting third -- third or fifth, doesn't really matter. I do like some continuity. I like to know what the guys in front of me are doing."

Maybin will lead off, with Hudson or Venable figuring to bat second. If they can set the offense in motion in front of Headley, Quentin, Jesus Guzman, Yonder Alonso and Nick Hundley, the Padres will be fun to watch.

Who knows? Maybe they can surprise the Western baseball world again.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.