Wednesday, March 23, 2005 | Baseball fans suffer from an odd affliction. You’ll hear them say owners throwing money at high-priced free agents are risking the game’s future. But the same fans often complain their team’s owner isn’t spending enough money.

Kevin Towers, the Padres’ general manager, knows this contradiction all too well. Many Padres fans, the vocal ones, wanted the holes of the 2004 season filled with expensive free agents.

“If the right player is there, I have all the confidence, within reason, we’ll try and sign him,” Towers said. “For long-term success, this club has to build from within. Who are two of the favorite young players? Jake Peavy and Khalil Green – they’re two homegrown players. We have to choose right when it comes to our core players and then supplement those players with free agents that fit our payroll.”

A year ago the Padres lacked speed, their power hitters suffered through off years, their No. 5 starter failed to produce and their bench was weak. Those are enough holes to assume the Padres finished well south of first place in the National League West. But San Diego won 87 games, six back of the Dodgers for the NL West title and only two-and-a-half arrears of Houston for the wild-card berth in races that came down to the final week of the season.

We don’t know how tightly Towers’ hands were tied by Moores’ fiscal policy, but there is no disputing Towers made enough credible moves to close the gap on the NL West champion Dodgers, runner-up Giants and the wild-card Astros of the NL Central.

The first improvement was a non-move that should pay off. The Padres would have been a better team in their old home of Qualcomm Stadium than in their spacious downtown park. Asking the Padres’ power hitters, now healthy, to adapt to Petco Park, where the Padres were an unacceptable 42-39 last year, didn’t require spending money.

“We realize, with the new ballpark, we can’t sit back and wait for the long ball,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s a tough park to hit a home run. We have to play well in all facets of the game.”

Center fielder Dave Roberts, a Rancho Buena Vista High alumnus acquired from Boston, improves more than one facet. He has wheels, manufacturing runs as a leadoff hitter as well as in the outfield, and his presence moves Sean Burroughs down in the batting order to a spot where he belongs.

The bench is bolstered by the acquisitions of outfielder Mark Sweeney and speedy second baseman Eric Young.

“I’ve always believed your bench is worth three to five wins,” Towers said. “Mark Sweeney is one of the finest left-handed pinch-hitters in the game.”

The Padres stayed close last year, thanks to pitching. Towers believes ace Jake Peavy can rise to the level of Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens. Adam Eaton and Brian Lawrence also are emerging stars. Towers also expects veterans Woody Williams and Darrell May to improve the staff.

“Woody is a better pitcher now than when he was here before,” Towers said. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say Darrell can win 10 to 15 games. He was pitching last year in a park that wasn’t conducive to a fly-ball pitcher.”

If the starters pitch six innings, they hand off the ball to one of baseball’s best bullpens. Scott Linebrink takes over in the seventh, Akinori Otsuka in the eighth and then to future Hall-of-Famer closer Trevor Hoffman in the ninth.

The Padres came close to the postseason a year ago with their build-from-within approach. They should be better in 2005. A debate on breaking the bank for free agents can wait for another season.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the Media Coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show “School and Sports Stars” on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.

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