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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H15

Sunshine and low 80s. If only the Padres' place in the NL West were as easy to predict as the San Diego weather.

After a riveting season in which the Padres remained in contention until the final week of the season, what General Manager Kevin Towers needed this winter was a little help from ownership. Instead, he got nothing -- which is why Towers had little choice but to watch David Wells sail away to Boston.

Still, Towers has remade the Padres in modest bits and pieces. For starters, he signed veteran Woody Williams -- whom Towers had traded to St. Louis in 2000 only to see him go 45-22 in three-plus seasons with the Cardinals -- to a cut-rate deal to replace Wells.

Center fielder Dave Roberts, whose stolen base for Boston in Game 4 of the ALCS turned the tide of the series, gives the Padres the credible leadoff man and speed threat they have lacked -- especially given the roomy dimensions of Petco Park. No use trying to out-slug anybody in that yard.

But if the Padres are going to take the final step this season and claim their first division title in seven years, it is going to be because of pitching. Ace Jake Peavy won the NL's ERA title in 2004 and appears on the verge of a breakout season. Brian Lawrence and Adam Eaton are both potential 15-game winners.

And veteran Trevor Hoffman reestablished himself as an elite closer last season, after missing all of 2003 with a shoulder injury.

Yes, if the Bonds-less Giants stumble, these Padres are the best bet to steal the division.

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