The Padres’ top pitching prospect and MadFriars’ number four overall will make his big league debut Friday night. But that lede hardly captures the momentous occasion.
When MacKenzie Gore takes the mound at Petco Park, he will be completing an ascension that simultaneously has seemed like a foregone conclusion and one which navigated much more doubt than anyone might have imagined.
Once the consensus top pitching prospect in the game, Gore’s rise was derailed in 2020, and he wound up all the way back in rookie ball last summer putting the pieces back together. Now reassembled with a new delivery but the same bulldog mentality, he seems on the verge of an impact big-league career.
The lefty, who turned 23 in February, has been at the top of prospect lists since the Padres made Gore the third overall pick out of high school in 2017. Powered by a combination of athleticism, advanced feel to pitch, and already solid velocity, he made a brief cameo in the Arizona League that summer, striking out 34 in 21.1 innings of work.The debut announced Gore as one of the top prospects in the game, and he landed at number two in our Top 20 prospects list that winter.
When we interviewed him during his first spring training, Gore had already added 10 pounds of muscle and was widely seen as having the potential to move very fast through the system. Instead, just as he left Peoria, he developed a severe blister on his pitching hand. He made it through one start in Fort Wayne before hitting the shelf. It took another trip to the injured list before his finger was finally ready to go, and Gore hit the ground running in June.
Over the second half of the season, he struck out 56 in 47.2 innings. It was enough that he remained behind only Fernando Tatis, Jr. in our Top 20 that offseason, but it certainly didn’t meet his own expectations.
“I thought last year was terrible, result-wise,” Gore told Kevin Charity the following spring. “But it was good; I learned a lot from it and I’m excited and ready to go this year.”
And Gore certainly proved it. He debuted in Lake Elsinore with a five inning, two-hit masterpiece, and only got better from there. Over 15 starts with the Storm, Gore posted an absurd 1.02 ERA, striking out 110 High-A batters while walking only 20 over 79.1 innings. Opponents hit just .137. It was pure dominance.
Gore appeared in the Futures Game that summer. But when our Marcus Pond interviewed him when he joined Double-A Amarillo in July, he still wasn’t content.
“Usually, the first innings haven’t been great this year,” Gore told him. “I gotta get a little better at that.”
As he approached his pitch limit for the year, Gore’s second-half stint with the Sod Poodles was more solid than spectacular as he finished with a 4.15 ERA over five truncated starts and he was shut down by the time his team claimed the Texas League championship.
But the year was enough for Gore to emerge as the clear top talent, not just in the organization, but the minors. There were still some adjustments to make when Gore arrived in camp the following spring, but it seemed likely Gore would make his big league debut later that year.
Instead, COVID-19 happened. Once things finally stabilized for MLB, Gore joined the team’s Alternate Site at the University of San Diego, it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before he arrived with the big club.
Instead, by late July, it was apparent something was off track. Whispers of mechanical issues and problems with control were leaking out of camp, but with the site locked down, first-hand information was hard to come by. Yet, when the team needed an arm for the playoffs, they bypassed Gore and instead called on Ryan Weathers
While the organization tried to explain it away, clearly something was off.
The challenge continued into 2021. When the minor league season got underway late, Gore broke with El Paso. After four uninspiring outings, he missed two turns in the rotation with vague reference to blister issues again. Things weren’t much better when he returned to action, and on June 18, he was shelled for three homers while recording just four outs.
Following that start, while the Padres made no official roster move, Gore requested to go back to the complex in Peoria to get things right. Away from public sight, he worked to tone down his trademark leg kick and re-find a consistent release point.
Two months later, he began a journey back, from the Complex League to Fort Wayne to San Antonio. The performance and results were mixed. Instead of finishing the year back in Triple-A, Gore was held back, then made a few uninspired appearances in the Arizona Fall League.
Coming into this year, Gore’s status was one of the biggest enigmas in the organization. Having been added to the 40-man roster last fall, he was unable to interact with Padres staff during the lockout. So, he went home to North Carolina and focused on consolidating the changes he’d made over the summer and ideas from the time he spent with Ruben Niebla in San Diego.
When the lockout finally ended in March, Gore was among the first players to arrive in Peoria. He was quickly in uniform, and made a clear statement: He was back. Building from the dominant two-inning simulation he threw that day, Gore progressed through Spring Training looking – new mechanics notwithstanding – like the Gore of 2019.
Gore works with a fastball that touched 99 this spring, a change-up that can be his best pitch at times, and a pair of breaking balls. He remains one of the better athletes in the organization, and now seems comfortable with the mechanics he reformulated over the last year.
Given how he performed bouncing back from the last time his results disappointed him, betting against him now seems like a poor choice.