Padres' arms, catchers arrive at camp

Padres embark on quest for third NL West title

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Scott Linebrink stepped through the clubhouse doors Thursday afternoon, and there at his locker in a heartbeat was Trevor Hoffman, meeting his buddy with a big hug.

"Welcome back," Major League Baseball's all-time saves king said to his main setup man. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

As greetings go, this one was heartfelt. Linebrink and Hoffman remain a team within a team, none of the trade rumors involving the big Texan having materialized. As athletes familiar and unfamiliar wandered in and out, it was apparent that the Padres' pitching staff looks as formidable as ever with future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux arriving along with another of the game's premier veteran artists, David Wells.

Hoffman, whose weight never strays from the 220-to-225-pound range, declared himself in prime condition for another run at the Cy Young Award after finishing second in the balloting to Arizona's Brandon Webb last season.

"Hopefully, it's going to be another productive year," said Hoffman, the National League's saves leader with 46 in '06. "Everybody's got to pull their weight and not be content.

"I'm right on pace physically, knock on wood. I'm pretty diligent with my workouts throughout the season and offseason, but I found time to relax with my family. I've gained some strength back, doing some weight work in the chest area I'm not able to do during the season."

Hoffman, with 482 career saves and the prospect of reaching 500 by midseason, is surrounded by arms, 31 by count. The pitchers and catchers will have their physical exams Friday and begin the process of getting loose at Peoria Sports Complex in Arizona. Reporting date for position players is Monday, with the first full-squad workout set for Wednesday.

Embarking on their quest for a third consecutive NL West title behind a new leader, first-time manager Bud Black, the Padres are confident they have assembled a pitching staff that will be the equal of any in their league and perhaps in all of Major League Baseball.

The two potential Hall of Famers, Hoffman and Maddux, have some impressive company.

Wells, who spent the final month and postseason with the Padres in '06, brings his big-game profile and 230 career wins to go with the 333 compiled by Maddux.

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Providing youthful balance to the rotation are ace Jake Peavy and fast-rising Chris Young and Clay Hensley, a pair of Texans who emerged as consistently effective starters alongside Peavy in 2006.

With Linebrink and Cla Meredith serving as setup men with few equals, Hoffman figures to get a lot of opportunities to enhance his all-time saves record.

Linebrink was baseball's leader in holds with 36, while Meredith made his dramatic imprint with 33 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings of relief, highest in the game since 2002.

"Our rotation is stronger and our bullpen is as strong as last year," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "We feel our pitching is what has won for us the last two years, and we're confident we've put together another excellent staff."

Eager to make it all work is Black, who spent the past seven seasons managing Mike Scioscia's pitching staff in Anaheim. Black would love to add another World Series ring to his collection, which includes shiny reminders of his 1985 triumph with the Kansas City Royals and his 2002 glory ride with Scioscia and the Angels.

"We have two Hall of Famers and another guy who threw a perfect game and has 230 wins," Black said. "If guys in Spring Training don't take advantage of this, we don't have the right guys in camp. It'll be good for everybody."

With Mike Thompson and Tim Stauffer waiting in the wings, the rotation is deep and well fortified. The main pitching questions Black will address this spring involve sorting out the middle-relief corps among a dozen candidates, led by veterans Doug Brocail and Scott Cassidy.

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Others making bids include Andrew Brown, Mike Adams, Scott Strickland, Kevin Cameron, Leo Rosales, Royce Ring, Justin Hampson, Ryan Ketchner and Sean Thompson.

Black understands fully how pitching and catching go hand in hand. He feels the club is in capable hands with Josh Bard and Rob Bowen sharing catching duties in the absence of Mike Piazza, with non-roster invitee Todd Greene hoping to slam his way onto the roster.

Bard, who hit .333 with power while making 50 starts behind the plate, is expected to do the bulk of the receiving. Piazza started 99 games with the gear, electing to go DH in Oakland this season.

"I've heard great things about [Bard]," Black said. "In my dealings with him, he's ready for the challenge of being the guy."

"Bard will be much more comfortable now that he doesn't have Piazza to compete with," Towers said. "Mike exceeded our expectations and gave us a lot of production. Now it's Bard's turn, and Bowen's, to show what they can do."

Greene hopes to muscle his way into the club's plans, drawing on extensive Major League experience.

After an annual charity game against their Peoria Sports Complex neighbors, the Seattle Mariners, on March 1, the Padres' Cactus League schedule opens the next day in the same park against the same foe. The official schedule starts March 2 at Peoria Stadium against the Mariners.

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