Richards edges Vaughn as top Padres left fielder

Pair displays a contrast in styles, longevity

Richards edges Vaughn as top Padres left fielder

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

Left field has been something of a catch-all basin for the Padres, making it the most difficult position to pick on my all-time Top Five Padres lists.

A franchise-record 36 different players have started the season in left field for the Padres, including three -- Nate Colbert, Ryan Klesko and Chase Headley -- who made my Top Fives at other positions.

Left field has also been the temporary home for a number of players who spent a single season with the Padres -- including Justin Upton, Reggie Sanders, Al Martin, Oscar Gamble, Ron Gant and Rondell White.

Plus, the Padres have employed both sluggers and speed merchants in left while not always focusing on defensive skills.

Because one of my criterion -- and remember, these are my lists -- is service time, I eliminated all the one-year players from consideration for my Top Five -- which is not easy, because only nine left fielders in Padres history played more than 200 games at the position.

So who is my pick for the No. 1 left fielder in Padres history?

It came down to two players who were almost polar opposites. Greg Vaughn was a power hitter with a short time span here. Gene Richards was a swift singles hitter who played more games in left than any other player in franchise history.

I'm going with Richards narrowly over Vaughn -- longevity getting the nod over one of the greatest single seasons in Padres history.

1. GENE RICHARDS (1977-83) -- No one played more games in left for the Padres than Richards. And while he lacked power and was limited defensively -- he had a weak throwing arm -- the swift Richards was a high-average batter who was the Padres' leadoff hitter in six of his seven seasons here. Richards, who also played first base, played 615 of his 939 games as a Padre in left field. Richards ranks in the top five on many Padres career offensive lists, including batting average (.291). 

Drafted by the Padres in January 1975 (there was also a January Draft four decades ago), Richards made his Major League debut as the Opening Day left fielder and leadoff man as a 23-year-old in 1977. He hit .290 that season and finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He finished 22nd in the NL Most Valuable Player voting in 1980, when he hit .301 with a .363 on-base percentage and career-highs in hits (193) and steals (61). The steals are the third-highest single-season total in Padres history, while the hits rank 10th. Career-wise, Richards ranks second on the Padres all-time list in stolen bases (242) and triples (63); third in runs scored (484); fourth in hits (994), at-bats (3,414) and batting average (.291); and ninth in walks (338).

His WAR as a Padre was 18.8.

2. GREG VAUGHN (1996-98) -- Vaughn played three seasons for the Padres, but the first two were something of a washout. Acquired by the Padres on July 31, 1996, in a trade from the Milwaukee Brewers, Vaughn hit only .206 in '96, though he had 10 homers and 22 RBIs in 43 games. In 1997, Vaughn hit .216 with 18 homers and 57 RBIs, and a midseason trade to the Yankees was voided because Vaughn didn't pass the Yankees' physical. 

But during the Padres' NL title season of 1998, Vaughn set the Padres' single-season home run record with 50. He also hit .272 with 119 RBIs and finished the season with a .960 OPS (.363 on-base percentage, .597 slugging percentage). He finished fourth in the NL MVP voting and won his lone Silver Slugger Award that season. Vaughn remains the only Padre to hit 50 homers in a season. His 112 runs scored in '98 ranks third for a single season in Padres history, with the 119 RBIs tied for the club's third-best single-season mark. On Feb. 2, 1999, Vaughn was traded with Mark Sweeney to the Cincinnati Reds for Sanders, Damian Jackson and a Minor League pitcher. In 284 games as the Padres' left fielder, Vaughn hit .243 with 72 homers and 182 RBIs. His WAR as a Padre was 6.9.

3. CARMELO MARTINEZ (1984-89) -- Martinez was a first baseman when the Padres acquired him and relief pitcher Craig Lefferts from the Cubs on Dec. 7, 1983, in a three-way trade that included Montreal. The rookie was moved to left field, where he became a key member of the 1984 NL champions. He hit .250 with 13 homers and 66 RBIs and finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. In six seasons with the Padres, the popular Martinez batted .248 with a .341 on-base percentage and a .408 slugging percentage. He hit 111 doubles and 82 homers and drove in 337 runs as a Padre. He played 549 games in left, the second-highest total in franchise history, and he finished with a 9.7 WAR as a Padre. "Melo" left San Diego as a free agent after the 1989 season.

4. RICKEY HENDERSON (1996-97, 2001) -- Henderson was toward the end of his Hall of Fame career when he first signed as a 37-year-old free agent with the Padres on Dec. 29, 1995. But he was instrumental in San Diego's drive to the NL West title in '96, when he had a .410 on-base percentage and scored 110 runs. During his three seasons with the Padres, Henderson set the Major League records for runs scored and walks in a career and also reached the 3,000-hit plateau. In three seasons with the Padres, Henderson hit .245 with a .399 on-base percentage. He also had 91 steals as a Padre with 23 homers, 98 RBIs and 243 runs scored in 359 games. Henderson's 4.1 WAR as a Padre was well off his career marks, but he gave the Padres an attitude. His 110 runs scored in 1996 was the fourth-highest single-season count in Padres history. Henderson drew 277 walks in 1,432 plate appearances as a Padre while striking out only 236 times.

5. PHIL PLANTIER (1993-94, '95, '97) -- The Poway High grad returned to his hometown on Dec. 9, 1992, in a trade with the Boston Red Sox. He was traded to the Houston Astros on Dec. 28, 1994, as part of the 12-player deal that brought Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley to the Padres. But he was acquired a second time the following July. Plantier played left in 267 of his 298 games as a Padre over four seasons. He hit .235 as a Padre with 57 homers and 160 RBIs. He had a .323 on-base percentage and a .462 slugging percentage. In '93, Plantier hit 34 homers (tied for the ninth-highest single-season total in Padres history) and collected 100 RBIs with a .509 slugging percentage. I picked Plantier at No. 5 over Jerry Turner, who played only 303 of his 638 games as a Padre in left field while hitting .250.