The Most Disappointing Season For…The San Diego Padres
The 1990 San Diego Padres
Record: 75-87 (T-4th NL West, T-9th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 673 (8th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 673 (6th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 89-73
Manager: Jack McKeon (37-43), Greg Riddoch (38-44)
Hype: With the steady hand of Trader Jack at the command, the addition of a proven RBI man, and a solid and fairly deep pitching staff, the Padres looked to overtake the Giants and win the NL West.
The Gory Details: Chemistry is overrated. You can have a clubhouse where everyone loves each other and lose, and you can have a clubhouse where everyone wants to beat each other senseless and win. All chemistry does is make good fodder for lazy reporters.
The 1990 Padres definitely produced fodder for reporters. That was about the only thing they were good at.
Well, that and having a couple players have terrific years no one noticed because of that whole not winning and sniping in the press deal. All that arguing wasn’t chill and it harshed the mellow of the locals there.
But first, it was sunshine and roses in San Diego.
In the offseason, they lost a declining Carmelo Martinez to free agency, and let Dave Hollins (oops) and Shane Mack (double oops) go in the Rule 5 draft. They also signed former Padre Craig Lefferts and former All-Star Fred Lynn as free agents.
The big deal, though, was the acquisition of RBI man Joe Carter from Cleveland. They gave up promising catcher Sandy Alomar (who was a luxury thanks to Benito Santiago), 21-year old Carlos Baerga and outfielder Chris James. The thinking at the time was that Baerga may not pan out (oops!) but Carter drove in 112, 106, 98 and 105 runs the last four seasons in Cleveland, of all places.
Add to that Santiago, Jack Clark, Tony Gwynn, speedy Bip Roberts, a rising star in Roberto Alomar, and vets Garry Templeton and Mike Pagliarulo, you had a very solid team at every position and could mix and match to give some of the older players a bit of rest.
The starting staff had stalwarts Ed Whitson and Bruce Hurst and veterans Eric Show and Dennis Rasmussen. Young Andy Benes had a 6-3 mark as a rookie after just 21 games in the minors. The bullpen, anchored by the versatile Lefferts, included young Greg (the one without the glasses) Harris, solid middleman Mark Grant and Calvin Schiraldi, who had a solid comeback season for the Cubs and Padres the year before.
It started out pretty good. They beat the 1989 champs in San Francisco three straight, and then had another three game streak at home (winning two straight games by identical 13-3 scores). But then they had a five-game losing streak before a win over the Cards put them at 10-11 on May 2nd. Meanwhile, the Reds were smoooookin’ hot like JTM burger on the grill and already put 4 ½ games between themselves and San Diego.
May was a winning month, but there were some fun and games. First, Jack Clark hurt his back and went on the DL, causing a ripple effect where Pagliarulo took over full time at third, Carter moved from center field to first base, Roberts to left and Lynn spent time in center (after starting out in left) with Shawn Abner and Darrin Jackson. Later, when Lynn proved to be rather much washed up, Carter returned to center so Phil Stephenson could man first.
What also happened in May was a team meeting. The Padres were 18-21 on May 23rd, already 9 ½ back of Cincinnati. Their supposedly deep pitching staff had given up double digits three times durin ghte year, including a 15-0 shellacking by Montreal on May 13th. Then later in the month, Pagliarulo told a reporter from a New York paper that there’s a teammate that cared only about his hits.
Then the team meeting on May 24th. Clark, never known as a pleasant fellow, was still out with a back problem AND a broken cheekbone, took umbrage or something, threw a full can of soda at the wall, and said, “The reason why the Padres suck is because Gwynn is a selfish mother!!”
Nice. Now, the Padres have dealt with weird stuff before – the whole Alan Wiggins thing in 1985 coupled with the John Birch Society pitching staff. Still, by this time Tony Gwynn was well on his way to sainthood.
Somehow, after that meeting, the Padres started to play a little more inspired. They were 7-3 during a long homestand with three games left against the Giants. Clark was back, and their lineup was whole again. That spurt put them at 30-25, in second place, and just 5 ½ back of the Reds who were quietly returning to this planet.
The Padres lost the first game of the Giants series. Then, in the bottom of the 7th down 3-2, Santiago pinch hits for Harris. The plan is to have him enter the game at catcher to replace backup Mark Parent, who started that night.
Jeff Brantley threw a tight one and whacked Santiago in the forearm. Broken arm. For the game, it’s a disaster because they had just two catchers on the team, so Joey Cora had to don the gear for the last two innings of the loss.
The bigger loss besides that game was Santiago. At the time of the injury he was hitting .317 with a slugging percentage of .511. He was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball too, with a strong arm and good framing technique.
So instead of an All-Star catcher, the Padres had to go a couple of months with Parent, who had power but that was about all of his positives, and either retreaddd Ronn Reynoldss (sorry), or minor league guy Tom Lampkin. Wouldn’t have Sandy Alomar been nice in that spot, instead of Reynolds or Lampkin, or even Parent?
Maybe the Padres could withstand that loss. Alomar was hitting .320 or so. Roberts was close to .300 with a .350 OBP. Carter was slumping (.240/.281/.432) but he’s bound to pick up the pace, surely. Clark was struggling with strikeouts but his OBP was .391 and when he made contact he scalded the ball. And Gwynn, the selfish one, was only hitting .341 with an OBP close to .400. Drat.
Whitson, Rasmussen and Benes were pitching well. Hurst had struggled but looked to be putting it together. Show, however, was a disaster. He was yanked from the rotation after an 0-5, 7.88 start, and replacement Mike Dunne wasn’t any better. Show had also struggled in relief as had Mark Grant.
In the end, the Padres couldn’t survive the loss of Santiago. He broke his arm on June 14, and didn’t return until August 10. They went from 30-28 and in second, to 51-59, 12 ½ games back in fourth place. No one else was hurt, though they did trade Grant to the Braves for Derek Lilliquist. During this time McKeon fired himself as manager, and put Greg Riddoch in charge. It didn’t help.
During Santiago’s absence, Gwynn hit ONLY .282, Alomar slumped to under .300, and Carter was even worse than before, hitting just .217. Carter WAS collecting RBI, because even though Gwynn was being a mere mortal, he was getting on base, as was Roberts and was Clark. Those RBI grounders and sac flys don’t hit themselves, do they? What’s worse, Carter was turning center field into a circus, flailing after hits to the gap and not being able to cover the ground.
Hurst did get himself in gear, but Rasmussen slumped, and they finally gave up on Show. Schiraldi stepped into the rotation and was banged around, so Lilliquist came in to start and stopped that bleeding. Whitson was cruising merrily along, getting people out like he was supposed to.
After Santiago came back, San Diego played .500 ball, 26-26. They never got closer than five games under .500 and did all they could to salvage even a tie for fourth place.
Gwynn continued to slide, all the way down to .309, his worst season as a full-time regular. There may have been something else on his mind, though. Clark and Pagliarulo were bad enough with their sniping. But when Gwynn found a Tony Gwynn doll hanging by a noose in the clubhouse with mutilated arms and legs, that tore it. Clark was blamed, but the Padres blamed ‘a groundskeeper’. Clark blamed Garry Templeton. Whoever was to blame, Gwynn was incensed. He had broken his finger on September 15th and was out for the season, but after that was found he packed his locker and went home for the year.
By all measures, 1990 was a big time failure for San Diego. Their two best players feuded. Their All-Star acquisition cost them a future All-Star and solid catcher, and all they got back was lousy offense (85 OPS+ even though he had 115 RBI thanks to a .232/.290/.391 slash. Yes he slugged under .400), and a -3.1 defensive WAR. The bottom of their staff fell apart. They couldn’t survive an injury to their catcher.
All that went right, really, was the 32 games Whitson took the mound. He had quality starts 27 times out of 32. Opponents only slugged .347 against him. Thanks to the offense he went just 14-9, but his 2.60 ERA was good for an ERA+ of 148, good for third in the league in ERA.
The Padres tried to move on, firing McKeon as GM, letting Clark become a free agent and trading Carter and Alomar to Toronto for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. They finished third the next two seasons even with the famous “Four Tops” batting order of Fernandez, Gary Sheffield, Gwynn and McGriff before bottoming out thanks to payroll issues. What could have been a very nice year turned into Jack Squat, as Trader Jack’s moves didn’t pan out.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Whitson had the highest WAR for any pitcher in the NL (7.0). Sadly, Whitson’s career ended in 1991 thanks to injury. Roberts checked in with a 5.7 WAR as well.
Honorable Mention Team: The 2007 Padres finished 89-74, missing the playoffs thanks to the miracle Rockies team that year. In 2008, with a good portion of that club returning, they withered and died at 63-99.
Bad Blast from the Past: San Diego was a 1969 expansion team, so I must look elsewhere. The Indians were affiliated with the PCL Padres for a while, and Cleveland had a ballclub in the NL from 1879 to 1884. Not much of a winner, but they did finish a close third in 1883. The Union Association swooped in, and took away Fred “Sureshot” Dunlap and Hugh “One Arm” Daily. Outfielders Tom York and “Bloody Jake” Evans were sold to Baltimore of the AA. Daly’s departure left Jim McCormick to be backed up in the box by rubes who combined for a 16-55 record. “Pebbly Jack” Glasscock saw all this and bolted for the UA halfway through the season, leaving the infield handled by two rookies. The Cleveland fans expressed their displeasure at the 35-77 record by not showing up, and when the UA collapsed and the AA shrank down to eight teams the Blues were also contracted to no one’s sorrow.