Paddack targets Opening Day, not just roster

Right-hander strengthens bid with seven-strikeout performance

March 9th, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- Chris Paddack entered his first Padres camp with a chance to crack the starting rotation. At this rate, he might start Opening Day.

Seriously -- he might.

The 23-year-old right-hander dazzled once again on Friday in the Padres’ 6-5 loss to Oakland. He pitched four scoreless innings, struck out seven and allowed three hits. At one point, Paddack struck out five consecutive A's, beginning with Khris Davis and Ramon Laureano, both projected starters.

There are obvious roadblocks to an Opening Day start for Paddack, MLB Pipeline’s No. 34 overall prospect. His innings are going to be limited this season after he threw only 90 last year in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Plus, there's the small matter of his first big league start coming on one of baseball's biggest stages.

If Paddack were to start the opener, he could make a small bit of history. Only four pitchers have made a big league debut in their team’s first game, none since the Phillies’ Al Gerheauser in 1943.

Does Paddack want the ball on Opening Day?

"Absolutely," he answers without even a split-second’s hesitation. "March 28. Against the Giants. [Madison] Bumgarner. That would be something special. I’ve dreamed about that as a kid."

Right now, there's no obvious Opening Day starter in San Diego. Among serious rotation candidates, Robbie Erlin's 37 career starts are the most on staff. Paddack, meanwhile, posted a 2.10 ERA with 120 strikeouts and just eight walks in his 90 Minors innings last season.

Earlier this month, when reporters began asking manager Andy Green about his Opening Day starter, he warned against counting days. The Padres, Green said, weren't planning for anything, because the race was so wide open. They'd be willing to adjust the order of their starters late in camp.

Fair enough. But let's do the math, anyway. As Paddack noted, the Padres' opener is slated for March 28 against the Giants at Petco Park. If he were to pitch every fifth day, Paddack would be in line for three spring appearances and then, yes, Opening Day.

Could a rookie with only half a season at Double-A really make his big league debut as an Opening Day starter?

Green wouldn't touch that question, only to say that practically every pitcher in the rotation race is in the mix to start Opening Day. That includes Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer, the early favorites, and Erlin, who threw four innings in a backfield game Friday.

"We have a lot of great guys, a lot of studs in this organization," Paddack said. "Like I said, I have no control over that. But I'm going to show them I'm ready and give them the hardest decision of their lives to make."

If the Padres make that decision, it would be an unprecedented one in the franchise’s 50-year history. Along with Gerheauser, Jim Bagby (1938), Nick Carter (1908) and Hall of Famer Lefty Grove (1925) are the only pitchers to have such an honor bestowed upon them.

Green wouldn’t discuss Paddack’s chances for Opening Day, but he acknowledged that the 23-year-old seemingly has the right temperament for such an occasion.

“He’s got great focus,” Green said. “He does a really good job of blocking out all the noise. We think he’s wired to be able to handle a lot of things we put in front of him.”

Of course, the Opening Day ballyhoo is beside the point. Paddack's innings will be limited, anyway, this season. The Padres haven't told him their exact plans, but Paddack says he's set a goal of 130-150 -- "just to show I'm healthy and I'm ready." During the season, Paddack could be shuttled between the Minors and the Majors to monitor his big league workload.

But in his three Cactus League starts, Paddack has a 2.08 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings. With his four frames Friday, it certainly doesn't seem like the Padres are building Paddack up to ease him into the season.

Still, Paddack insists he’s not looking too far ahead.

"We still have two weeks left of spring,” he said. “I still have a lot of stuff to prove to this organization that I'm ready. But if Opening Day is tomorrow, I'd tell myself I've done everything I possibly could to earn that job.

"But this team is something special. It's not just me. It's all the guys in that clubhouse. We have something special. It's going to be fun for the city of San Diego to see some winning baseball. And not only that: We're going to have a playoff push this year. If not, the next few years for sure."

If there's a playoff push in 2019, Paddack just might be the one to start it. On March 28.