Former-Gator pitcher David Patton vies for spot on Chicago Cubs major league roster
By ERICK WALKER
Auburn Reporter Sports Reporter
Mar 18 2009, 3:04 PM · UPDATED
He has the arm, one that can dial up high-90 mile per hour fastballs with regularity.
He has the ability, too.
Now, thanks to a whirlwind mid-December afternoon, Kentridge product David Patton finally has the opportunity for which he has waited a lifetime.
“It happened around Christmas, and I was with my family,” Patton explained rather matter-of-factly. “It is how I’d like it to be.”
The unflappable, ice-water-in-the-veins reaction to that life-changing day was vintage Patton. It’s how he is. It’s how, as a professional relief pitcher who enters baseball games with runners on base and the game on the line, he has to be.
In a span of just a few hours last Dec. 12, Patton was selected from the Colorado Rockies by the Cincinnati Reds with the seventh overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft. But less than the time it takes to complete an entire nine-inning game, Patton was shipped from the Reds to the Chicago Cubs for cash.
“You could say it’s my big break,” said Patton, a right-handed pitcher who originally was selected in the 12th round out of Green River Community College by Colorado in the June 2004 draft, but has yet to pitch an inning above high Single-A. “I have an opportunity to make a major league roster. This is probably one of the biggest opportunities I’ve ever had in my life. Getting the chance to play for the Cubs is a dream I’ve had all my life.”
Being chosen in the Rule 5 Draft, however, has certain, somewhat complicated, caveats.
For beginners, the only reason Patton was eligible for the draft is because he has spent five years in the minor leagues and has never advanced above Single-A. Any player who has been with an organization for five years and has not been slotted on the parent club’s 40-man roster automatically becomes eligible for the Rule 5 Draft.
But what makes this Patton’s greatest opportunity to date lies in the governing rules to that draft. Any player who is selected must remain on the team’s 25-man major league roster for the entire upcoming season or be offered back to his original organization. In Patton’s case, that means sticking with the Cubs for the entire upcoming season or be offered back to the Rockies.
Which helps explain Patton’s excitement – albeit subdued – during that mid-December afternoon.
“My agent called and said, ‘Seventh round by the Reds,’” said Patton, a relief pitcher who’s armed with a high-90s fastball, a knee-buckling curveball and a developing changeup. “So I talked with a couple buddies I knew who played for the Reds … then I was on the computer fooling around and I got a call from the Cubs. I was kind of shocked.
“It took me completely by surprise.”
Now, Patton’s hoping to take the Cubs’ brass by surprise, because at the moment, he’s slightly more than a blip on the radar in a rather crowded bullpen this spring. Though he's quickly making a name for himself as he entered play Wednesday having allowed five hits and one earned run while striking out six in 5 1/3 innings over four appearances.
But the arms race with the Cubs remains a white-knuckle battle. The team is expected to break spring camp in late March with seven relief pitchers. Two of those slots already have been filled with veterans Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol.
Meanwhile, Sean Marshall, Aaron Heilman and Jeff Samardzija are currently battling for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Two of the three likely will end up in the bullpen, shrinking the number of available slots in the bullpen down to three. Add in Neal Cotts, the team’s lone left-handed reliever, and Patton’s situation becomes even more pressure-packed.
“I think it’s probably going to be harder to earn a spot, and easier to lose it,” manager Lou Piniella said in an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune newspaper earlier this week.
Patton, however, isn’t bothered by the numbers crunch.
He’s more interested in the potential that lies ahead.
“I wouldn’t say I’m nervous,” the 24-year-old said. “I’m more excited. This is what I’ve always wanted. This is an opportunity to learn and see how they go about their business. I consider myself a professional and I take care of myself pretty well. I also grew up a die-hard Mariners fan in Seattle, when Lou was the manager.”
Patton also has history on his side as several current major leaguers have been selected in the Rule 5 Draft and have made healthy careers for themselves. The list includes New York Mets pitcher Johan Santana, Florida second baseman Dan Uggla and Philadelphia outfielder Shane Victorino.
“When you get another team ready to put their name on you, to grab you in the Rule 5 Draft … a lot of players have come out of that,” Patton said. “It’s definitely a great opportunity. Any movement is good movement. To get a shot at making the club, it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
Miscast as a starting pitcher upon being drafted out of Green River, Patton got off to a somewhat slow start, posting a 5-11 record and 6.79 ERA in 29 appearances (18 starts) in his first two professional seasons.
Since 2006, when he was shifted to the bullpen, Patton has been one of the top relief pitchers in the minor leagues. Last season with the Modesto Nuts (Colorado’s High-A affiliate), Patton went 4-5 with four saves, a 3.54 ERA and a career-high 87 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched. In addition, he limited opponents to a .214 batting average with runners on base.
But more telling might be Patton’s velocity. When he was originally drafted in 2004, his fastball was hitting the low-90s on a steady basis. Today, he sits between 94 and 96 and can get as high as 97.
“He always had a funky delivery and the ball just exploded out of his hand,” recalled Kentridge coach John Flanigan. “He played basketball for me at Northwood Junior High, and you would have never thought in eighth or ninth grade that he’d be a major league pitcher. It shows what hard work and sticking with it does.”
If Patton makes the Cubs’ opening day roster, he will become KR’s first-ever major league baseball player.
But Patton’s not alone among Chargers on the diamond rise. Mason Tobin, a 2005 Kentridge graduate and right-handed pitcher, currently is the No. 10 overall prospect with the Los Angeles Angels and finished last season with Cedar Rapids, the organization’s Low-A affiliate.
For now, however, all Patton cares about is the task at hand. He realizes things are crowded in the Chicago bullpen.
But after five years in the minors, he also knows this is the best chance he’s had to date. And he anticipates taking full advantage.
“My goal is to go out there and give it everything I have,” he said. “If I make the club, that would just be unbelievable.”