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Sunday, July 12, 2009 | There may not be a less-talented team in the major leagues today than the San Diego Padres.

During my 15 years of covering the Padres for The San Diego Union-Tribune, the team seldom, if ever, was as troubled as it has been in the last season-and-a-half. In my time on the beat, the club won four National League West titles and went to a World Series.

There were also five losing seasons in a row and two Padres clubs so bad that even the team’s general manager was appalled. All things considered, though, it was a pretty good run.

That run has ended. Under the orders of club owner John Moores, the team has the second-lowest payroll in the major leagues and continues to look for ways to shed salary. The team appears headed to a second straight season with more than 90 losses. The farm system, which generally has underachieved since Moores bought the team in 1994, hasn’t kept pace with several rivals.

The reckoning has arrived.

Jeff Moorad, who plans to buy out Moores within a few years, hasn’t shown any signs that he’ll significantly boost the payroll. As recently as late May, Moorad was still sounding out potential investors. No one knows how much money Moorad’s group will pump into the team.

So the team will have to get creative if it is to be successful. And that could take a while.

“I think it will be five years before the Padres are good again,” said a successful talent evaluator from another National League club.

How will the Padres become a winning franchise again? Drawn mostly from my reporting experiences, here are ideas for what the Padres should do going forward.

Make the most out of every dollar, since they will be scarce

Let’s start with a crucial assumption. The Padres will continue to have a payroll that is among the lowest in the majors. Just as important is whether Moorad, the club’s CEO and vice chairman, will invest heavily in the farm system, something the Padres did the last two years. He certainly pleased many within the club last month when he approved the drafting of two high-upside, potentially expensive prep outfielders. The club is prepared to offer $5 million for its top pick, outfielder Donavan Tate.

But the team sharply pulled back its spending in Latin America this year, contrary to the advice of former CEO Sandy Alderson, who approved $5.5 million to sign foreign amateurs last year.

And unlike Moores as a new owner, Moorad isn’t trying to get a ballpark built. Within his first three years as owner, Moores more than doubled the player payroll and hugely increased the club’s marketing budget.

Find out the trade value of first-baseman Adrian Gonzalez and closer Heath Bell.

That doesn’t mean the club should trade either player, but those are the two players who would bring the most in a trade. So find out what they’re worth.

Gonzalez can become a free agent after the 2011 season. He is hugely underpaid. And he abhors losing. When Moorad’s regime attempted to trade Jake Peavy to the White Sox in May, Gonzalez lamented that it signaled another youth movement. In response to those published comments, Moorad summoned Gonzalez for a chat. If Moorad truly plans to keep Gonzalez past 2011, he needs to show him that the Padres are committed to winning. Not an easy sell. Gonzalez, 27, may be looking at a third consecutive season of 90-plus losses in 2010.

Clear the way for Chase, and challenge Forsythe.

It’s likely that third-baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff will be traded this month and benefit from leaving Petco Park. That will allow left-fielder Chase Headley to move to third, his natural position.

The Padres also need to develop a second-baseman. Logan Forsythe, the position player in Double-A creating the most buzz among non-Padres scouts, is a third-baseman. He might have the athleticism to survive at second base. The Padres should try him there in the fall Instructional League.

The Padres are already doing the right thing at shortstop by turning to Everth Cabrera, a rookie and by pursuing young pitching in trades.

Go after more amateur pitchers with high upside.

Year after year, a veteran starting pitcher would sign with the Padres, then tell me he’d accepted less money than what other clubs offered. It wasn’t all spin. Why wouldn’t a veteran pitcher looking to re-establish himself give the Padres a good price? Petco Park is where doubles and home runs go to die, San Diego’s climate is close to perfect for baseball and NL lineups are weaker than American League lineups.

Some of the discounted pitchers panned out for the Padres, such as David Wells, Woody Williams, and at times this year, Kevin Correia and Chad Gaudin. Others were busts (Mark Prior). But the Padres already have an advantage when trolling free-agent waters to fill out the bottom of their rotation. So when investing big dollars in amateur pitchers in the draft or in foreign countries, they should pursue only those whose fastball gives them the potential to become a front-line starter.

Further, the Padres need to stop limiting themselves to picking only college players in the draft’s first round. That’s how it worked from 2005-2008. Alderson and the team’s statistical filters strongly discouraged picking high school players in the first round. The overly cautious, top-down approach frustrated Padres scouts. And it may have cost the Padres prospects such as Casey Kelly, an athletic, high-upside pitcher chosen 30th overall last year for the Red Sox by a former Padres scout, Jason McLeod.

Get to know University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll.

Once baseball began testing majors leaguers for performance-enhancing drugs in 2005, the value of athleticism rose even higher. Not that it wasn’t high already.

How can a club improve at tracking the better prep athlete across 50 states? Get to know Carroll or his recruiting coordinator. Carroll evaluates more great athletes than any other college coach, regardless the sport.

The Marlins already might be tracking USC’s recruiting. They signed a former USC football recruit, Mike Stanton, who now is among the top power-hitting prospects in baseball.

Carroll also has excelled at creating an environment so competitive that even five-star recruits turn down playing time at other big-time schools so they can try to work their way up USC’s star-studded depth chart. The Padres should study Carroll’s best-man-wins system. When the Padres summoned prospect Matt Antonelli to the majors last September after he bombed in Triple-A, passed-over prospects having good seasons wondered if the Padres were truly running a meritocracy.

Get a load of this.

When reporting on Padres prospects over the years, I often heard the same flag-raising comments about swing technique. “He doesn’t load his swing,” a scout would say. “He’s a ‘dead-hands’ hitter.”

A load isn’t the amount of tobacco a ballplayer jams into his mouth. Think of a load as a way the hitter improves timing and power by taking his hands back or down — even if only slightly — before going forward. The Padres’ Gonzalez loads his swing deftly, using his legs like Braves star Chipper Jones. Gonzalez already had the technique nailed when the Marlins drafted him out of Chula Vista’s Eastlake High first overall in 2000. So did Tony Gwynn during his amateur days, at San Diego State.

“People talked about the many great things Tony Gwynn did as a hitter; the thing they never mentioned was the thing he did best — his load,” said Merv Rettenmund, a longtime major-league hitting coach who had two coaching tours with the Padres.

The Padres didn’t have many hitting prospects in my time on the beat, and many that the club did tout didn’t load their swings — including Sean Burroughs, Josh Barfield, Antonelli, Kyle Blanks and Kouzmanoff. At the time, Burroughs and Barfield were amassing good, even great, numbers in the minors. Each fizzled quickly in the majors. Antonelli dazzled until he got to Triple-A.

Blanks and Kouzmanoff have rare brute strength that improves their chances. Nonetheless, a faulty load increases the difficulty of a task that some rate the most difficult in sports. The Padres would benefit from finding a few more hitters who do it the tried-and-true way.

Take advantage of geography

The Padres have discussed expanding their scouting efforts within San Diego County. Good idea. The area is rich in baseball talent, but the hometown team has failed to pluck a lot of fruit within its own backyard the last decade and a half. And in that span, what little local fruit the Padres did find in the draft went bad quickly or ripened elsewhere.

The Padres chose Carlsbad High’s Troy Glaus with a second-round pick in 1994 but failed to sign the slugging third-baseman (whose adviser was Moorad, then a player agent). Glaus, who left Moorad before leaving UCLA, would help the Angels win the World Series in 2002. The Padres’ selection of Mission Bay High shortstop Matt Bush first overall in 2004 may qualify as the worst top pick in draft history.

With the 13th pick in 2002, the Padres made a good selection in Clemson shortstop Khalil Greene, but only after their medical staff shot down Rancho Bernardo High pitcher Cole Hamels. Last year, Hamels led the Phillies to a World Series title. The Padres also decided against drafting San Diego players such as current major leaguers Brian Giles, a 17th-round pick of the Indians in 1989, and, in recent years, Adam Jones, Justin Masterson and Joel Zumaya; plus current prospects such as pitchers Trevor Cahill and Sean O’Sullivan. Former San Diego prep stars such as Barry Zito, Jacque Jones and Carlos Quentin also were bypassed by the Padres in the draft after they went to Pacific-10 universities.

It’s well past time to put the San Diego back into Padres.

Tell it like it is.

Last, I would advise the Padres to shoot straight with their fans. They deserve it. It’s a pretty understanding baseball market, one that sent two million fans into Qualcomm Stadium in 2003, to see a 98-defeat club in the franchise’s fifth consecutive losing season.

If money is tight and miracles are needed to reach the playoffs before 2012, it’s better to give fans a realistic take.

Please contact Tom Krasovic directly at tkrasovic@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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