Why Dylan Cease and the Padres decided the pitcher should make a solo trek to South Korea

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SEOUL — Milton High School, located north of Atlanta, has produced four major leaguers. The first, Kyle Farnsworth, pitched for nine teams across 16 seasons. The second, Dexter Fowler, went to an All-Star Game and won a World Series in the same year. The third, Bobby Scales, surfaced with the Chicago Cubs after 11 seasons in the minors and later applied his experiences as farm director for the Los Angeles Angels.

The fourth, Dylan Cease, went from the Chicago White Sox to the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, then from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Incheon International Airport less than two days later.

“I’ve got to imagine that’s pretty historic — you show up for the first time, you get traded and you meet your club in Seoul,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said.

Sunday in Seoul, Cease essentially shrugged when asked about his grueling itinerary. The runner-up for the 2022 American League Cy Young Award will not pitch in the Padres’ season-opening two-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers here. With his new teammates already in South Korea, Cease and the club could have had him stay in Arizona to face minor-league hitters before making a short trip to San Diego. Instead, he made a transpacific flight on his own.

“I think there’s a lot of benefits,” Cease said. “On top of that, it’s a very cool experience. Yeah, it’s just good to get acclimated with the team and the staff and kind of just see how everyone goes about their business and kind of what things are going to look like and what’s expected.”

Cease has never played, at any level, with anyone on the Padres’ 31-man traveling roster, but he quickly impressed his new teammates with his enthusiasm after trekking halfway around the world, where there is at least one reminder of home.

“That shows his character, obviously,” said a fifth potential major leaguer from Milton High, Padres infield prospect Graham Pauley. “He’s a great guy. Wherever he was going (to be traded), he was going to a winning organization, and I think the Padres are a great place for that.”

Cease still lives near Milton, Ga., and he has known Pauley since the hitter was a high school sophomore; that offseason, the two faced each other in live batting practice. “Back then, he was way better than anything I had seen,” said Pauley, who remembers struggling to make contact.

Cease’s stuff has elicited praise throughout his career, and in hindsight it is clear why an A.J. Preller-run team, operating with payroll constraints, made the right-hander its top target from the beginning of the offseason. Cease, Shildt said, should deepen San Diego’s starting rotation and, by extension, the bullpen. His proven ability to log quality innings should allow the organization to exercise continued patience with its best minor-league arms.

“We felt really good with where we were at the top part of the rotation and even the last two guys filling out the fourth and fifth spots,” said Joe Musgrove, who will start the Padres’ second game of the season after Yu Darvish gets the ball Opening Day. “Maybe not a ton of experience, but really good stuff and really good competitors. But we’re adding a guy that’s had 200 punchouts for the last three seasons. That’s a solid piece to add to this rotation.”

The Padres, who surrendered Jairo Iriarte and Drew Thorpe in last week’s trade, still have pitchers who could surface this year in Robby Snelling, Ryan Bergert, Adam Mazur and Austin Krob. Yet none of those prospects will be asked to work 165-plus innings. Cease reached that threshold each of the past three seasons while drawing comparisons, for better and worse, to former Padres lefty and two-time Cy Young winner Blake Snell.

Unlike Snell, Cease at least has had a spring training. And coming off a down season, he appeared to make the most of his 8 1/3 innings in the Cactus League, recording 14 strikeouts against two walks and convincing the Padres to take the plunge on another blockbuster.

“I feel great,” Cease said. “I’m just in a really good rhythm right now. I feel like I made some adjustments. And I’ve done some things that have really helped me to command the ball more consistently, which … when things go wrong for me, and for most pitchers in general, it’s usually command. I always had the stuff, but right now I’m putting it where I want to.”

For the Padres, it is still spring training. They played the first of two exhibitions Sunday night at Gocheok Sky Dome, edging the South Korean national team 1-0, and there are at least a few roster decisions to finalize before Wednesday’s season opener against the Dodgers.

One has already been made. Cease will start Monday’s exhibition here against the LG Twins, and the Padres will then carry Cease as part of a three-man taxi squad during the Dodgers series before potentially starting him in an exhibition against the Seattle Mariners next week. Cease is expected to make his official Padres debut when the San Francisco Giants visit Petco Park on March 28-31.

“We’re grateful that he came out here,” Musgrove said. “It’s nice getting to meet him and especially for (pitching coach Ruben Niebla) to be able to explain how we do things a little bit, show him our film system — like, the way that we look at video and the way that we game plan. That’s the biggest adjustment when you get traded.”

Cease’s arrival has changed the complexion of an offseason in which San Diego slashed payroll by close to nine figures. The Padres remain in need of offensive additions — Sunday, they scored their lone run on a wild pitch while being outhit by Team Korea — but at least on paper, they now feature one of the league’s better rotations.

Soon, they also might roster multiple players from an Atlanta-area high school.

“The Padres are the new Milton pipeline, I guess,” Pauley said with a smile.

(Photo of Dylan Cease: Gene Wang / Getty Images)

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