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Padres believe offense will improve

Padres are confident offense will improve

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- An obvious lack of offense last season wasn't so much a concern as it was an inconvenience, as strong pitching carried the Padres to their second consecutive National League West Division title.

But that all changed in the playoffs, though, as the Padres' offensive shortcomings were exposed in the Division Series when San Diego managed only six runs in 36 innings, and it lasted four games before bowing to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals.

While four games is too small a sample size to judge a team, even in the postseason, the lack of offensive production was essentially a continuation of the offensive struggles that dogged the Padres during the regular season.

And so as the Padres prepare to open defense of the NL West, one urgent question begs to be asked: Will the offense be better this season with the additions of second baseman Marcus Giles and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and increased responsibilities for left fielder Terrmel Sledge and catcher Josh Bard?

On another sun-splashed day in Peoria recently, Padres general manager Kevin Towers pondered just that question before declaring the offense could be better than the one that ranked 13th in the National League in runs scored in 2006, even if that means more manufacturing than mashing.

"We're going to have to do a lot of the little things right," Towers said. "Advance runners, bunt, hit-and-run, find ways to manufacture runs. We don't have a great deal of power on our ballclub or a great deal of speed. But if we execute the little things right, we can still score runs."

On the surface, it doesn't look like that will be easy, not with the offseason departures of Josh Barfield (.280 batting average, 13 home runs, 58 RBIs) who was traded to Cleveland during the offseason and Mike Piazza (.283-22-68) who signed a free-agent deal with the A's.

But Towers likes the players who will replace Barfield and Piazza and thinks the team can overcome the loss of speedy leadoff hitter Dave Roberts (49 stolen bases), who is now patrolling the outfield in San Francisco.

Kouzmanoff, a career .350 hitter in the Minors, came over in the Barfield deal. He'll be the starter at third base and, in the Padres eyes, will hopefully lend some consistency to a position where six different players combined for 19 errors and offered very little in the way of offense in 2006.

The likely replacement for Roberts will be Sledge, who is healthy for maybe the first time since 2005 when hamstring surgery put him on the shelf. But he launched four home runs in the first two weeks of Spring Training and even showed that, as a left-handed hitter, he can hit left-handed pitching.

Expect some at-bats to go to Jose Cruz Jr. in left field as well. But either way, the Sledge-Cruz Jr. combination will have more of an impact on the lineup from a run production standpoint than Roberts did.

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"We'll get more offense from left field and third base and similar offense at second base," Towers said. "The key is really behind the plate. It's going to be hard to match that. But I'm not expecting [Josh] Bard to put up Piazza numbers. The tradeoff is better defense."

Bard was certainly a big hit after coming over from Boston with Cla Meredith in the May deal for Doug Mirabelli. All the switch-hitting Bard did was hit .338 with nine home runs in 93 games.

Giles joins his older brother, right fielder Brian Giles, for the first time in his career, as he comes over from Atlanta where he had -- for Giles, at least -- a down season, hitting .262 with 11 home runs and 60 RBIs as he struggled at time adapting to being the leadoff hitter.

Giles appears to be the frontrunner to hit leadoff again this season, as he has looked good in the spring hitting at the top of the order. Sledge and Brian Giles could also end up there as well at some point.

Brian Giles said he doesn't buy that having a prototypical leadoff hitter is an absolute for the success of the team. He actually believes that having a solid No. 2 hitter is every bit as important.

"As far as getting things done, if you have someone who can handle the bat in the second spot who is a good on-base guy, you can put a lot of pressure on opposing teams just with those types of things," he said. "And if you have run producers down the middle of your lineup, you can be a successful offense. It's a matter of how you're going to manufacture runs with the guys you have."

The Padres like their middle-of-the-order guys, especially All-Star-caliber first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who hit .304 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs. Brian Giles drove in 83 runs and walked 104 times. Shortstop Khalil Greene is certainly capable of big things if he stays healthy, and center fielder Mike Cameron (22 home runs, 83 RBIs, 25 stolen bases) swings a big bat and still covers a lot of ground.

"The guys are going to have to play to their expectations," said Padres first-year manager Bud Black. "It doesn't matter what team you're talking about. The teams that have good years, guys exceed those expectations."

Corey Brock 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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