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Tuesday, April 04, 2006 | Remember last year when some San Diegans actually were disappointed or even embarrassed by the Padres winning the National League West title with a very average record of 82-80? They talked like they wanted to throw it back.

Well, that title looks a lot brighter today. The Padres are flying a division title banner over Petco Park following Monday’s opening day ceremonies as the Padres begin the 2006 season against the San Francisco Giants.

Yeah, 82-80 sounds better with the renewal of spring than it did in a fading September. In April, the Padres are the defending National League West champions – a distinction they’re enjoying for only the fourth time in franchise’s 38th season.

Would you feel better with 90-plus wins and a second-place finish?

Consider the Chargers last year. Until a late-season collapse with losses in their final two games, they appeared destined to finish 11-5 and out of the playoffs. That’s an impressive win total any year, but the Chargers would have lost out on a tiebreaker for the final wild-card playoff berth to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.

Think the Chargers would have thrown back a 9-7 season if it were good enough for a playoffs berth?

I can’t imagine anyone wanting to give back a division title. Unless, maybe, you’re a San Francisco Giants fan and you know your franchise’s owners and management sold their souls to look the other way while Barry Bonds flaunted baseball’s integrity. If you believe Bonds hit his home runs with the benefit of merely flaxseed oil, Ben Johnson has another version of the 1988 Olympics he’d like to tell you.

But once the 2005 season was over and the Padres were thrust into the role of defending champions, CEO Sandy Alderson, general manager Kevin Towers and manager Bruce Bochy knew their lineup required drastic changes before 2006 arrived.

“I went to spring training looking forward to this season probably more than any other since 1998,” said Towers, referring to the franchise’s World Series team. “We started with 18 new faces – almost half our 40-man roster. We were excited about winning the division last year, but it wasn’t an exciting club to watch. We wanted to put together a more exciting club this year to watch.”

What the Padres lacked last year was speed on the base paths, speed in the outfield gaps, sure gloves at the corners and power at the plate, especially in their home park. Some more consistent starting pitching would be nice, too.

Mike Cameron, a veteran center-fielder, addressed the speed question in more ways than one, although the Padres will have to wait a couple of weeks or more to see his offensive and defensive addition following a trade with the New York Mets. Cameron put together a promising spring until he injured an oblique muscle in on one of his last spring training workouts.

When Cameron is healthy again, the Padres feel they have three center-fielders in their vast outfield. Dave Roberts, the Rancho Buena Vista High alumnus, is a center-fielder now running down balls in left and Towers considers right-fielder Brian Giles, a Granite Hills High alum, an average center-fielder if forced to play the position.

Improved power, the Padres hope, will come from the veteran bats of Vinny Castilla at third base and Mike Piazza behind the plate.

“Vinny Castilla has been around for a long time and is probably the most popular player south of the border,” Towers said. “This guy is capable of big numbers. Mike Piazza has put up tremendous numbers and has post-season experience.”

The Padres like Castilla’s glove at third and Adrian Gonzalez, an Eastlake High alumnus, is a slick fielding first baseman that may be ready to breakout at the plate after batting .390 in the spring. Ryan Klesko is injured again, opening the door for Gonzalez at first if he’s mature enough to take advantage of his opportunity.

On the mound, Shawn Estes and Chris Young have been added to the rotation behind All-Star Jake Peavy. Don’t be surprised

“We’re not satisfied by any means by last year,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “We know we have some work to do to strengthen ourselves in areas that will make us a better club. We want to execute better than we did last year. We know how important that is.”

The Padres hope to be more exciting this year, but they also have more competition in the division against the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. They could win 90-plus games and not win the division.

Yeah, the 2005 NL West banner flying over Petco looks a lot better than you thought a few months ago.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at

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