BRIAN HIRO wrote:PEORIA, Ariz. ---- When he came to spring training last year, third baseman Sean Burroughs was fired up to serve as the Padres' leadoff hitter. It was a position in the batting order he had never occupied, even going back to his days as a Little League star in Long Beach.
Burroughs excitedly recounted his grueling offseason work at an athletes' performance camp in Carson, where he reshaped his body into ---- if not a sleek sports car ---- at least a smooth-running sedan. He talked about his desire to steal more bases and set a good table for the big boppers behind him in the lineup.
Those warm, fuzzy feelings about leading off didn't last long.
"I got to the point where I basically hated it," Burroughs said recently. "It was a good experience, but I don't think I was suited for it."
Burroughs can comfortably say now what he probably knew in the back of his mind all along: He's not a leadoff man.
The Padres had no better alternative last season, so they stuck a square peg into a round hole and hoped for the best. And Burroughs was by no means a disaster in the role, hitting .298 with 76 runs scored in 130 games for a team that hung in the playoff race until the season's final weekend.
For this year, the Padres went out and got themselves a prototypical table-setter in Dave Roberts, the first such player they've had since Rickey Henderson in 2001. Thanks to Roberts' acquisition, Burroughs will slide down in the order all the way to the No. 8 hole, although he could also trade off in the sixth and seventh spots with Khalil Greene and Ramon Hernandez, depending on how each is faring at the plate.
"Wherever it's going to be, there's a lot less pressure," Burroughs said. "When you're batting eighth, you can be a little more selective. The pitcher is behind you, so you know you won't get as much to hit. You're going to get walked a lot more."
Walks is just one of the categories in which Burroughs' statistics dipped from a promising second season that had stamped him as a future standout with the stick. His average and runs increased; in six more at-bats, however, his home runs went from seven to two, his RBIs from 58 to 47, his doubles from 27 to 23, his walks from 44 to 31, and his OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) from .754 to .713.
"I thought he made big strides two years ago. He looked like he took that next step," Padres hitting coach Dave Magadan said of the 24-year-old Burroughs.
"That's why I think a lot of us were not as high on the kind of year he had last year because I feel like he went backward. Whether that was because he was hitting leadoff or whether he thought he had to make changes, the bottom line is I felt like he could have done better."
Burroughs' lack of power was especially glaring. On one hand, he has never been a big home-run hitter (no double-digit totals in six professional seasons) and in leading off wasn't as focused on driving the ball as he was on reaching base. On the other hand, he's a fairly strapping kid of more than 200 pounds who plays what is traditionally considered a power position.
"It's something that obviously we're aware of, but it's not so much home runs," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "I want Sean to take consistently good swings. He has a remarkable ability to put the bat on the ball, but sometimes he doesn't take advantage of hitter's counts and sometimes he could be a little more selective."
Without comparing Burroughs with Tony Gwynn, one of baseball's all-time best hitters, Bochy drew a parallel between them. Like Burroughs, Gwynn started off a master batsman who excelled at slapping the ball around the field. As his career progressed, however, Gwynn grew proficient at turning on pitches and driving them to the pull side, which resulted in personal-best totals of 17 home runs and 119 RBIs at age 37.
"That comes with experience," Bochy said.
Said Magadan: "I'm not looking at Sean as a guy who can go out there and hit 30 home runs. But there's no reason why he can't hit 10 to 15, hit 35 to 40 doubles and have an on-base percentage over .400. I think it's in him."
Burroughs does, too, although he cautions against expecting an overnight change. He won't all of a sudden start ripping the ball all over the yard ---- just as last year he wasn't going to be a walking, base-stealing machine, a la Henderson.
"It will be in the back of the mind, but I won't go up there trying to yank everything," he said. "You can't look to do that in our park. We play 81 games in Petco, and it's one of the worst offensive parks in the league. You have to hit your singles; you have to try to hit the gaps."