I would just like to preface this article by acknowledging that I know that it’s very early in spring training and that in a general sense, it’s too soon to determine who will end up being the Padres’ “ace” in 2018.
There are a handful of interesting arms in Major League camp this season that could break out, even before Opening Day. Bryan Mitchell could come alive and be what the scouts valued at $13 million. Dinelson Lamet could add that third pitch and become a truly dominant force. Matt Strahm, teamed with the tutelage of Darren Balsley, could become a solid top of the rotation piece.The possibilities are there and let’s just hope that all of these pitchers progress enough to compete for leadership in the rotation.
The role of Opening Day starter is highly symbolic gesture. A team generally chooses the pitcher to start on Opening Day who they best believe can set the tone for the season. For the last few seasons, the Padres have not set the tone well. In 2016, the Padres sent Tyson Ross to the bump on Opening Day against the Dodgers and they lost 15-0. In 2017, the team started Jhoulys Chacin, again against the Dodgers. They lost 14-3. Those were some embarrassing moments for the franchise, without question. This year needs to be different.
The most dignified move that the Padres could make, would be to honor the leader of the pitching staff, Clayton Richard, with the Opening Day selection in 2018.
It’s true that Richard may not be the most exciting pitcher on the team.It’s true that at 34 years old, he’s a bit long in the tooth, therefore his upside doesn’t match that of some of the youngsters previously named. What he does bring to the table is an intangible that most resembles grit. Don’t worry, I’m not going to base this opinion solely on intangibles. There are some numbers to justify this selection as well.
It shouldn’t be easily forgotten that on April 4, 2017, the day after Chacin and the bullpen were shellacked by the Dodgers on Opening Day, Richard took a Mulligan for the team and snatched back a win. Not only did he win, but he did it like a boss. He pitched eight shutout innings against the impending National League Champs. I remember thinking to myself that night that the team had blown it by not starting Richard a day prior. It was supposed to be his.
It would be nice for the team’s Opening Day starter to go late into the game this season. Not to keep rehashing bad memories, but the last two openers ended up spiraling into bullpen disasters. Richard can take us deep. He went six innings or more 20 times last season and eight innings or more five times, including two complete games. He’s got an old school sensibility that makes him hungry to finish what he’s started. It’s not a guarantee that he will be able to go the distance on Opening Day, but if he does, that would be setting the tone alright.
If Richard gets the start, it will also give the team an opportunity to show off it’s flashy new infield right out of the gates. Richard is able to stay late into games because he doesn’t wear himself out. As a ground ball pitcher, he heavily relies on his teammates to make the outs. He generated ground balls 59.2 percent of the time in 2017. If he was successful last season with the defense he had behind him, just imagine what he will be able to accomplish with Freddy Galvis and Eric Hosmer in his infield. With Richard, you won’t get a ton of strikeouts, but you will likely see some exciting plays and a team working together.
Last September, the Padres extended Richard to a two-year, six million dollar contact. It was a gesture that the team made to show Richard how they value him. Jhoulys Chacin didn’t receive and extension, nor did Trevor Cahill, who both fit a similar veteran profile to Richard in 2017. No, I think that the Padres targeted Richard first for his abilities that were previous discussed, as well as the intangibles, like his leadership and grit.
The Padres won’t get the opportunity for Opening Day payback against the Dodgers this season. Instead, the team will be hosting the season opener at Petco Park against the Brewers on March 29. If the team wants to turn the page this year and give Richard a shot at the Opening Day start, he could lead the team to the first Game One victory in years. The fans are hungry for a dignified start, and he’s overdue for this honor.