The best thing about Adrian Gonzalez being traded in early December is this: The San Diego Padres have informed us what direction their heading.

The answer is downward.

The Padres could have kept Gonzalez to start the season and kept baseball fans in San Diego wondering about their commitment. It surely would have made it easier for the folks assigned to sell season-ticket plans if the All-Star first baseman and hometown hero was still on the roster.

Good luck earning a sales bonus now when all of baseball can see that the Padres aren’t vying to match last season’s success.

Here’s another problem with the Gonzalez trade – San Diego could have made that same exact trade with the Boston Red Sox in June.

There was no rush to make that trade now – other than cutting Gonzalez’s bargain $6.2 million salary off the payroll – when the return was three minor-league prospects in pitcher Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Reymond Fuentes and a player to be named later.

Who knows what the trade market might have produced once the season was a third over? You may recall the Angels lost slugging first baseman Kendry Morales two months into last season.

If the best Padres general manager Jed Hoyer was going to do was obtain prospects, then there wasn’t a need to rush. You may recall the Padres got the same package from the Chicago White Sox for Jake Peavy in August, 2008 after he had been injured for three months as they would have if he hadn’t originally turned down the deal in May.

Obviously, the Padres knew they weren’t going to be able to retain Gonzalez after the 2011 season and made a panic move. They also knew if they had the same type of team success they had in the first half of last season, they couldn’t move Gonzalez without it becoming overly apparent that winning isn’t the top priority.

But let me tell you, that secret is out of the bag too. Just look at what has gone on this offseason.

In addition to the trade of Gonzalez to the Boston Red Sox, the Padres didn’t retain infielder Miguel Tejada (Giants), catcher Yorvit Torrealba (Rangers), starting pitchers Jon Garland (Dodgers) and Kevin Correia (Pirates) and center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. (Dodgers).

Other players who are current free agents include starting pitcher Chris Young, second baseman David Eckstein, utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr., and outfielders Scott Hairston and Matt Stairs.

Relievers Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb were moved in a trade with the Florida Marlins.

For those of you not into counting, that’s half the roster of a team that went 90-72 last season and was eliminated from the playoff chase on the final day of the 2010 season.

You would expect such a housecleaning if the Padres had gone 70-92. But not when you win 90 games and were close to regaining trust from a fan base that grew distrusting of the franchise during John Moores’ final years as owner.

Jeff Moorad promised more than he’s currently delivering – if All-Star closer Heath Bell is moved, we can begin calling this Fire Sale II – and you can start questioning whether he and his group have the financial resources to compete. After all, the Padres had one of the lowest payrolls in baseball last season and will now have a lower one in 2011.

The offseason additions are less than stirring and don’t come close to replacing the departed.

Starting pitcher Aaron Harang, who last had a good season in 2007, was signed as a free agent. In case you missed it, Harang has a record of 18-38 over the past three seasons.

The local-boy factor is the best thing that can be said about Harang, who certainly will receive a long opportunity to revive his career with three open starting pitcher roles up for grabs.

The Padres also acquired Cameron Maybin in the trade with the Marlins. The 23-year-old Maybin is penciled in as the new starting center fielder despite a .234 batting average last season and this scary fact: 92 strikeouts in only 291 at-bats.

All we really know is that Maybin can provide a summer breeze for fans when he swings and misses.

Maybin already has been moved twice – by the Detroit Tigers and the Marlins – without establishing himself as a bona fide major-leaguer.

Based on those two underwhelming moves, I bet you can’t wait to see what the Padres do to replace Gonzalez, who had four consecutive 30-homer seasons while playing half his games in a homer-unfriendly ballpark.

Obviously, if Gonzalez’s 2011 salary was too much for Moorad and the Misers, you know the chances of paying the going rate for a power hitter: Slimski and Noneski.

The Padres gave us a thrilling, suspenseful 2010 season and could have fine-tuned the roster and went after it again in 2011. Instead, they are in full retreat mode and have revealed their intentions well before spring training arrives.

There is no mystery — a rebuilding season awaits.

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