Thanks to the game's best and deepest farm system, as well as the Manny Machado signing, the San Diego Padres are clearly a team on the rise. They might not win much in 2019 -- SportsLine projects the Padres to win 72 games this season -- but they're going to be a handful for rival NL West teams in 2020 and beyond. The organization is in a great place.
Among San Diego's top prospects is Chris Paddack, a 23-year-old right-hander with video game numbers. Last season he posted a 2.10 ERA with 120 strikeouts and only eight walks in 90 innings split between High Class-A and Double-A. One of those eight walks was intentional too. The Padres acquired Paddack from the Marlins in the Fernando Rodney trade at the 2016 deadline and he needed Tommy John surgery soon thereafter. He returned last season with a vengeance.
So far this spring Paddack has allowed two earned runs with 14 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings during Cactus League play. Seven of those 14 strikeouts came in one outing against the Athletics last week.
MLB.com ranks Paddack as the 34th best prospect in baseball (but only the Padres' fifth best prospect!) and says he could "carve out a role as a mid-rotation starter" even if he doesn't develop a consistent breaking ball. That's because his changeup is so good -- "Paddack's changeup is a true plus-plus pitch, thrown with convincing arm action and bat-evading tumble as it nears the plate," says their scouting report -- and because he commands his low-to-mid-90s fastball so well.
Despite having barely pitched at Double-A (37 2/3 innings last year), Paddack went to spring training with his sights set on a big league rotation spot. In fact, he set his sights higher. Paddack recently told MLB.com's AJ Cassavell he wants to start on Opening Day. From Cassavell:
"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."
"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."
As Cassavell notes, count the days from Paddack's most recent Cactus League appearance and he lines up perfectly to pitch on Opening Day. Manager Andy Green cautioned not to read too much into that though. He told Cassavell the team will rearrange its rotation late in spring training to line up starters.
Paddack's lack of upper level experience and the fact the Padres will certainly monitor his workload this season, his second year back from Tommy John surgery, work against him as he makes a case for the Opening Day assignment. So does being a rookie. Starting a rookie on Opening Day just doesn't happen.
That all said, I am very much in favor of fun and cool baseball things, and Paddack starting on Opening Day would certainly qualify as a fun and cool baseball thing. Allow me to make a case for the young man to get the ball in San Diego's season opener. Here are three reasons Paddack should start Opening Day for the Padres.
Paddack might be their best starting pitcher
The Padres have a monster farm system and a shiny new Manny Machado. They are not blessed with tremendous starting pitching, however. They have to turn some of those prospects into starting pitchers, either by incorporating them into the rotation or trading them for established big league starters, to make that jump from rebuilder to contender.
The various projection systems love Paddack and believe he is close to being San Diego's top starting pitcher right now. Here are Padres pitching WAR projections from three major projection systems:
Joey Lucchesi (1.7)
Joey Lucchesi (2.4)
Joey Lucchesi (1.8)
Dinelson Lamet (1.2)
Chris Paddack (1.8)
Chris Paddack (0.5)
Chris Paddack (1.1)
Robbie Erlin (1.8)
Robbie Erlin (0.5)
Jesse Scholtens (1.1)
Eric Lauer (1.1)
Matt Strahm (0.5)
Several tied at 1.0
Brett Kennedy (0.9)
Luis Perdomo (0.5)
ZiPS has Paddack throwing 31 1/3 fewer innings than Lucchesi, which contributes to the gap in WAR. PECOTA has Paddack throwing at least 63 fewer innings than Erlin, Strahm, or Perdomo. Steamer has Paddack throwing 77 fewer innings than Lucchesi. On a rate basis, Paddack (1.96 WAR per 100 IP) is already a more effective big league pitcher than Lucchesi (1.42 WAR per 100 IP) according to Steamer.
It seems crazy to suggest a pitcher with little more than a cup of coffee at Double-A and no time at Triple-A could be the best pitcher on a big league pitching staff right now, but Paddack is not your ordinary pitching prospect, and the Padres aren't exactly loaded with aces. If nothing else, Paddack is in the conversation as the team's best starting pitcher, and that should put him in the Opening Day starter conversation as well.
The Padres don't have any great alternatives
Generally speaking, teams start their best starting pitcher on Opening Day. Sometimes they go with the longest tenured pitcher -- the Mariners started Felix Hernandez (4.36 ERA in 2017) over James Paxton (2.98 ERA in 2017) last Opening Day, for example -- but, generally speaking, teams go with their best in the season opener.
In addition to the projections liking Paddack as much as anyone on San Diego's staff, the Padres do not have that long-tenured starter who could get the Opening Day nod almost by default. Here is how the Padres line up their rotation depth chart on their official site, and each pitcher's number of career big league starts:
- Joey Lucchesi: 26
- Eric Lauer: 23
- Robbie Erlin: 37
- Matt Strahm: 8
- Jacob Nix: 9
- Bryan Mitchell: 20
- Brett Kennedy: 6
Erlin leads the way with 37 career big league starts and those 37 starts are spread out from 2013-18. His career high is the 12 starts he made last year. Lucchesi, Lauer, Nix, and Kennedy all made their MLB debuts last season. The Padres are not a rebuilding team like, say, the Tigers, who have a well-paid veteran in Jordan Zimmermann they could start on Opening Day.
The Padres have had six different Opening Day starters in the last six years (Clayton Richard, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyson Ross, James Shields, Andrew Cashner, Edinson Volquez) and all six are in different organizations now, so San Diego is guaranteed to have a seventh different Opening Day starter in the last seven years. Without a clear cut ace and without a long-tenured starter, the Padres are free to give the Opening Day nod to whomever they want. Paddack wouldn't be stepping on any toes.
It would be incredibly cool
This is as good a reason as any. A rookie starting on Opening Day would not be unprecedented. It would be extremely cool, but it would not be unprecedented. Four times in baseball history a rookie has started Opening Day and it's been a while since it last happened:
Al Gerheauser, 1943 Phillies
11-4 loss to Dodgers
Jim Bagby, 1938 Red Sox
8-4 win over Yankees
Lefty Grove, 1925 Athletics
9-8 win over Red Sox
Nick Carter, 1908 Athletics
1-0 loss to Yankees
Lefty Grove is in the Hall of Fame! Nick Carter started only three more games in his career. So we've got a wide range of potential outcomes here. Of course, what happened with Grove or Carter or any of those guys has no impact on Paddack. He'll carve out his own career path regardless of whether he starts Opening Day.
I suppose there's a chance Paddack could start on Opening Day, get rocked, and lose so much confidence that it derails his career. I'd bet against that though. He seems like a smart and confident kid, and, frankly, if one bad start has that much of a negative impact on his career, then he wasn't going to make it as a big leaguer anyway. I wouldn't sweat any potential fallout from a dud Opening Day start. My guess is it would be the start of a long and prosperous career.
If nothing else, starting a rookie on Opening Day would be a fun little footnote as the Padres begin on the path to contention. Paddack's a great pitching prospect and the fan base is excited, more than they have been in a long time now. Dipping in to that farm system to give the ball to a rookie on Opening Day would create even more buzz around the team.
In all likelihood, no, the Padres will not start Paddack on Opening Day. My money's on Lucchesi or Erlin. In fact, my guess is Paddack will not even be on the Opening Day roster. He's barely pitched above Single-A ball and, even if the Padres believe he's ready for the big leagues, they'd almost certainly keep him down long enough to push back his free agency. Service time manipulation is standard practice nowadays.
The door is open for Paddack to start Opening Day at least a little bit, and as long as he continues to pitch well in spring training, he's going to force the team to make a tough decision. Is it unlikely he starts on Opening Day? Yes. Would I say it's impossible? Not a chance.