The 2005 Padres were a middle-of-the-road defensive team -- not too bad, not exceptionally good.

With a sleeker machine, enhanced by a couple of dazzling new parts, they plan to travel a higher road this season.

In center field, with two Gold Gloves on the mantel and aspirations for more, Mike Cameron plans to make an impact when he returns from the disabled list. He strained his left oblique taking batting practice in Las Vegas just three days before Opening Day after enjoying a tremendous spring.

One of the best of his generation defensively, the long-striding Cameron is eager to roam PETCO Park's vast expanses alongside Dave Roberts and Brian Giles in what could be as good an outfield as the National League has to offer.

Roberts will move back to left from center, assuming Ryan Klesko's old spot, when Cameron returns.

"We've got three guys who have played center field at one point or another," said Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who has held that job since 1995. "It's one of the better defensive outfields since I've been here."

The left side of the infield was no problem, with Sean Burroughs and Joe Randa operating alongside acrobatic shortstop Khalil Greene. But Vinny Castilla has been superior for more than a decade at third base, and he still has the knack with a sure glove and strong, accurate arm.

Greene has few equals at shortstop, needing only to stay whole for a full season to claim a Gold Glove of his own.

"I played with Vinny in Colorado [in 2004] the year he set the record for most chances without an error," said Shawn Estes, the new San Diego southpaw starter. "He's unbelievable. I get a lot of ground balls hit to the left side of the infield, and it's not going to get any better than those two guys."

Greene's new partner in the middle of the infield, rookie Josh Barfield, has shown enough range and savvy at second base to ease the loss of polished, dependable Mark Loretta.

"Vinny and Khalil have tremendous gloves," Towers said, "and Barfield's played great defensively this spring. He and Greeney look very good at turning double plays. With [first baseman] Adrian Gonzalez not far away, I really like how our infield is shaping up for the future."

At first base, Klesko is an improvement over the tag team that covered the bag last season, and Gonzalez potentially is a huge upgrade.

Not to demean Klesko, who is better than his critics think with the glove, but Gonzalez has the look of a young J.T. Snow. He makes all the plays, ranging far for pop flies, and he will save his infielders some errors on short hops with his soft hands and excellent footwork.

Gonzalez might get the nod at first base on Opening Day, as Klesko, who has continuing issues with his left shoulder, could be headed for the disabled list.

Mark Bellhorn and Eric Young can play second, and Bellhorn and Geoff Blum support Castilla at third. Blum is the backup for Greene at short.

The all-purpose Blum, whose World Series Game 3-winning home run made him a household name in Chicago, is proficient at all four infield positions. Blum also can play the outfield and is the emergency catcher behind imports Mike Piazza and Doug Mirabelli.

This is the area, behind the plate, where the questions arise defensively.

Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Olivo were solid receivers, combining to provide quality work throughout 2005. Olivo was invaluable during Hernandez's absence with a wrist injury in August and early September.

Piazza has handled excellent staffs with the Dodgers and Mets, and he takes his defense very seriously. He never has had a strong throwing arm, and that won't change now. But manager Bruce Bochy thinks Piazza's experience, toughness and willingness will compensate for that flaw.

Mirabelli has been regarded throughout his 11-year career as a backup catcher without peer defensively, and he can drive the ball with underrated pop.

It remains to be seen how they'll divide 162 games. Piazza figures to get more playing time owing to the presence he brings to the lineup in the cleanup spot, but Bochy has said that Mirabelli will play more than ever before, meaning at least 83 games.

In the outfield in support of Roberts, Cameron and Giles are Terrmel Sledge, Young and Ben Johnson. The club likes Sledge's quick, compact stroke and solid defense, making him the likely fourth outfielder.

This has become an area of strength, perhaps deeper than any other on the roster.

The impact of an improved defense -- a potentially game-changing defense -- should be felt by a pitching staff that did not fare as well as it could have last season with a 4.13 team ERA.

"A good defense can shave a team's ERA," Towers said. "We think we've helped ourselves quite a bit defensively."