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Sledge, Gonzalez assume new roles

Friars seeking leadoff, cleanup hitter this spring

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Not many two-time defending division champions enter a season needing to replace their leadoff and cleanup hitters, but that's the principal challenge confronting the Padres and new manager Bud Black.

With catalyst Dave Roberts taking his instigating talents to National League West rival San Francisco and big bopper Mike Piazza poised to do his celebrated slugging as Oakland's designated hitter, the Padres are looking for energy and muscle from alternative sources.

Terrmel Sledge, fully recovered from a hamstring tear that required surgery in May 2005, gets the first crack at Roberts' dual jobs in left field and at the top of the batting order.

First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who flourished hitting behind Piazza most of 2006, is expected to move into the No. 4 slot.

Sledge and Gonzalez came from Texas along with starting pitcher Chris Young in a six-player swap that paid tremendous dividends in 2006, primarily from Gonzalez, voted club MVP by the organization, and Young, who blossomed into one of the league's dominant starters.

Sledge struggled with injuries in the spring and never managed to settle in as a roster fixture. He did, however, deliver one of the most important blows of the season with a game-turning home run in San Francisco against Armando Benitez, and he made the most of his time at Triple-A Portland before getting recalled to San Diego late in the season.

Replacing Roberts' flying feet won't be easy. Doc was successful on 49 of 55 steal attempts while batting .293 with a .360 on-base percentage.

At Portland, where he was managed by the Padres' new bench coach, Craig Colbert, Sledge had a .402 on-base percentage and .511 slugging percentage while batting .311.

"Craig Colbert saw Terrmel all last season and speaks very highly of him," Black said. "And we don't think Sledge was back to 100 percent last year. We think he has the ability to be a solid leadoff hitter."

Sledge handled the job in college at Long Beach State and in his first two professional seasons, stealing 36 bases in his second season and 30 his third.

In his only full Major League season, Sledge batted .269 for Montreal in 2004 -- overcoming a 1-for-34 start -- and had .336 on-base and .462 slugging percentages.

"I haven't run the bases as aggressively as I can [in the Major Leagues]," Sledge said. "I always enjoyed leading off, and I'm excited about the opportunity."

A second option is available in new second baseman Marcus Giles, who has leadoff experience from his six seasons in Atlanta. Ideally, the team would like to have Marcus hitting second, in front of big brother Brian.

"He's played for some championship teams there in Atlanta," said Towers of the 28-year-old right-handed hitter. "He plays the game hard. He's durable, gives you a lot of plate appearances and gives us a little speed at the top of our lineup."

Plagued by injuries last season, Marcus batted .262 with 11 home runs, 60 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. In the 2003 season, his first as a full-time starter, he batted .316 with 21 home runs and 69 RBIs and made the All-Star team. He has a .285 career average with 72 home runs in 2,514 at-bats and a .361 on-base percentage.

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"First and foremost, Marcus is a good player, that's the main thing," Black said of the man who will replace Josh Barfield. "You look at his talent, that's the thing that we look at first: Is he going to help the Padres win baseball games? And he is.

"He combines both offense and defense. He's a great defender and offensively, he's capable of making an impact at the top of the order. He's got some power, he's got some speed. He's a tough out."

Gonzalez also is a tough out, marking his first chance to play regularly in the Major Leagues in 2006 with a team-high .304 average among regulars. The San Diego native delivered a club-best 24 homers, two more than Piazza and Mike Cameron, and his 82 RBIs fell one short of co-leaders Brian Giles and Cameron.

Gonzalez batted fourth only 13 times in '06, trailing Piazza (117) and backup catcher Josh Bard (29).

With Bard assuming Piazza's job as No. 1 receiver and Rob Bowen moving up to the backup role, Bard also is an option in the cleanup spot.

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound switch-hitter hit .338 in San Diego after arriving from Boston and .333 overall, with nine homers and 40 RBIs. His .537 slugging and .406 on-base percentages after joining the Padres led the club among players with at least 200 at-bats, along with his .338 average.

Another possibility to hit fourth as the season progresses is new third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, acquired from Cleveland along with reliever Andrew Brown for Barfield.

Kouzmanoff has shown throughout his Minor League career that he has the power and consistency to hit fourth, but the club doesn't want to put too much pressure on him too soon. He'll probably hit fifth or sixth.

Cameron, who likes to call himself a Swiss Army knife, is the club's most versatile offensive weapon, capable of hitting anywhere in the order, including cleanup.

One spot he'd like to avoid, however, is leadoff, a job he happily entrusts to Sledge.

"Terrmel can get the job done," Cameron said. "He just needs to stay healthy."

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

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