Top prospect MacKenzie Gore proving his value to San Diego Padres

Mackenzie Gore is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. (Getty Images)

Based on what he’s shown in his two years as a pro, the San Diego Padres have plenty of reason to hold on tight to pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore.

The Padres’ roster is built on a mix of one of the deepest farm systems in the game and a willingness to splurge on big free agents. As many of those prospects have graduated to the majors, Gore has stood out as the leader of the next wave.

“It's a lot of fun. It's pressure, but it's a good thing,” Gore told Yahoo Sports. “It just makes you look forward to getting there. It makes you really want to get there as quick as you can.”

San Diego committed $527 million to Manny MachadoEric Hosmer and Wil MyersFernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack are in the hunt for National League Rookie of the Year. Luis Urías and Francisco Mejía have both proven to be impact rookies. Michel BaezAdrian MorejonAndres Muñoz and the since traded Logan Allen, are all rookie pitchers that have broken into the bigs.

The Padres also have highly regarded 19-year-old pitchers Luis Patino and Ryan Weathers in different levels of Class A. CJ Abrams and Xavier Edwards are two teenage infield prospects in the pipeline that are among the best 100 minor leaguers in baseball.

“It's definitely a lot to stay on top of, but it's exciting more than anything else,” Padres director of player development Ben Sestanovich said about the immense talent within the system.

Even as Allen was traded, the Padres did so from a position of depth. San Diego shipped a young pitcher, of which they have many, to acquire outfielder Taylor Trammell, a consensus top-50 prospect in Double-A, from the Cincinnati Reds.

Why not follow the same strategy to immediately bolster the major league roster?

“I think we view, like all of them hopefully being on a staff together and competing amongst one another,” Sestanovich said of the future of the rotation in San Diego.

When rumors surfaced that the Padres were looking to add a front-end starter, a la Noah Syndergaard, a willingness to part with Gore probably could have gotten the deal done. But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when Wednesday’s deadline passed, Gore remained with the organization.

At the behest of area scout Nick Brannon, Padres director of amateur scouting Mark Conner got his first look at Gore in the East Coast Pro showcase before his senior year of high school.

The 6-foot-3 left-hander failed to improve on his 0.08 ERA after his junior year at Whiteville High School, a smaller institution with roughly 700 kids about 50 miles west of Wilmington, North Carolina. But his 0.19 mark in his final season earned him Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2017.

After watching an early-season scrimmage, Conner was drawn to Gore’s exceptional command of a fastball that he could locate pretty much wherever he wanted. Conner saw a changeup that was already advanced, and as the season progressed, a curveball and slider presented two more potential plus offerings.

“He's just one of those guys that from the moment he picked up the ball and started playing catch outside to the last pitch of the game, you love to watch him throw,” Conner said.

Conner admitted that Gore was on the top of his draft board in 2017, where he was selected third overall and subsequently signed a club-record $6.7 million bonus.

After breezing through high school and Rookie-level competition, Gore ran into some trouble for the first time last year. It wasn’t his Midwest League opponents, but his hand that gave him fits.

Blisters on his hand and fingers limited Gore to just 60 2/3 innings in 2018. He also compiled a 4.45 ERA over that span.

“When he was out there and couldn't pitch to the ability that he wanted, it definitely bothered him,” Conner said. “For him to overcome that I think was extremely, extremely important in the development process.”

A promising career needed to be eased back on track with rest and simple fingernail maintenance.

Gore put all the blister issues — which he said didn’t affect how he gripped the ball — behind him and “really hasn't missed a beat” according to Sestanovich.

The 20-year-old holds a 1.72 overall ERA in 99 1/3 innings this season.

He was elevated from Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore after going 7-1 with a 1.02 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings to open the season. He’s made four starts with Double-A Amarillo, the second of which he allowed seven runs over four innings.

“I always like to see how guys react in times of adversity because you know when they get to the big leagues it's going to be a test there,” Double-A Amarillo manager Phillip Wellman said. “I just had a feeling the kid was going to be fine his next start because he was so blunt and honest.”

Gore’s following outing, a 5 1/3-inning scoreless gem in which he fanned six, better fit his profile.

“I just got back to doing what I was doing before,” Gore said. “Just kind of getting my feet up under me. There was no panic button or anything.”

In the California League, Gore caught a glimpse of what his future could look like.

The 20-year-old Mackenzie Gore holds a 1.72 overall ERA in in 99 1/3 innings this season. (Getty Images)

After a stretch of difficult starts in June that caused his ERA to inflate to a still-impressive 3.15, the Padres optioned Paddack to Lake Elsinore, where he got a 10-day hiatus from game action.

Already having blazed the trail for this group, Paddack, who only made seven Double-A starts last year before making the opening day roster in the big leagues, looked to make the most of his brief time among pitchers like Gore and Patino.

“Those are two young studs that we’re going to have up here in the rotation, whether it’s next year or the following year,” Paddack said.

Both Paddack and Gore said that they did their best not to get too bogged down in baseball talk. But when the time came, Paddack warned that the biggest difference at the next level was the hitters.

He cautioned that in the majors, you better have your wipeout stuff because hitters don’t chase out of the zone. The 23-year-old added that the technology and scouting reports in the big leagues can give a pitcher’s plan away before they step on the mound.

“It’s a cat and mouse game. Make sure you’re the cat,” Paddack said. “It’s crazy what a year can do. I told them to always keep in the back of their mind that if I can do it, y’all can do it. There’s no excuse.”

One thing Paddack enjoyed during his time in the minors was the visual appeal of Gore’s delivery.

Gore said he employed a high-leg kick in his windup at around 12 years old. Whether or not it adds deception or extension to his delivery is unimportant to Gore, and even to the Padres. For Sestanovich, the leg kick has become a part of Gore’s identity.

“I think his delivery is part of what makes him really good. It's pretty unique,” Sestanovich said. “It kind of makes everything work for him.”

It caught the eye of Brannon and Conner before the draft. Paddack was similarly awestruck to see it again in Lake Elsinore.

“Watching Gore pitch, man, it’s an art,” Paddack said.

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