This year's TinCaps are loaded with pitchers whose talents lead many to predict big days and years ahead. But there's only one Opening Day 2013.
Joe Ross will take the mound, as well as the honor.
“It kind of puts the extra confidence in you going out for the first start of the season, knowing the coaching staff is behind you to put you first for the year,” Ross said. “It's a big honor. I'm excited for it, actually.”
Ross will pitch for the TinCaps in their opener at Great Lakes tonight, his first Opening Day start as a professional pitcher.
Ross, the younger brother of San Diego Padres pitcher Tyson Ross, was drafted out of high school in the 2011 supplemental draft. He signed a $2.75 million bonus to turn pro after originally planning to play at UCLA.
He played for the Arizona League Padres in 2011, and saw time with the rookie league team in 2012, but also with short-season Eugene and six games with the TinCaps.
A shoulder injury shortened Ross' time a year ago but expanded his perspective.
“The injury kind of gave me a kick in the behind about really working hard and trying to do my best to stay healthy,” Ross said.
He learned plenty about professional pitching over the last year and a half, too.
“The biggest thing is giving your defense a chance to make plays,” Ross said. “It's all about throwing strikes, staying down in the zone. You don't want to try to do too much. That first game, maybe you could get overexcited and try to do too much. I have to stay in the zone, try to get ground balls and fly balls and let the defense help any way they can.”
Ross has the makings of an ideal frame for a pitcher. He's 6-foot-3, 185 pounds (so he could and should increase his weight as he moves up the chain). He has a 95-97 mph fastball along with a quality change-up and a still-developing curve.
Ross won't turn 20 until May, so he's still relatively young in his professional journey.
Spring training went well, he said, and he hopes to improve considerably in his on-the-mound numbers this season.
Ross started six games (finishing with an 0-2 record) for the TinCaps last season, pitching 27.1 innings, giving up 33 hits, 19 earned runs, striking out 27 and walking 11. He pitched for the TinCaps during the early part of last season.
It's almost like this will be a rookie reboot season for him.
“My arm feels great, my body feels great,” Ross said. “I pitched well (in spring training). I'm 100 percent confident in all my pitches now. Being here (last year) kind of prepped me for weather and competition and travel, and things like that.”
Ross is hardly the only bonus-baby pitcher on the TinCaps this season. Left-handed pitcher Max Fried, the second pick in the 2012 draft, signed a $3 million bonus, and Walker Weickel signed a $2 million bonus. The TinCaps pitching staff will likely have a six-player rotation.
“Of the six starters I have, three of them are No. 1, 2 and 3 picks, so that's a lot of money,” TinCaps manager Jose Valentin said. “That's something where I have to keep an eye on those guys and keep them healthy all year round.”
Baseball America ranks four of the TinCaps pitchers among the top 30 prospects in the Padres farm system: Friend (second), Weickel (12th), Ross (14th) and Zach Eflin (16th).
There's only one Opening Day starter, however.
Is it the toughest assignment of the season?
“I would say mentally yes and no,” Ross said. “Obviously, it's the first game of the season and you want to put your team off to a good start, but other than that, every start is just as important. You never want to take any start or pitch off.”