Vicente Padilla headed for bullpen

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Although Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Vicente Padilla probably will, as expected, begin the season on the 15-day disabled list as he continues to recover from surgery,

But his rehabilitation appears to be moving forward quickly, faster than the medical staff anticipated. Padilla had surgery Feb. 24 to free a nerve that was trapped by a muscle in his right forearm, but there appears to be a slight window of hope the veteran right-hander will be ready when the season begins.

"That is still kind of up in the air," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said Saturday. "He is progressing nicely, but we'll just see how it keeps going. [Considering] the fact he hasn't been out there at all, it's kind of tough to say."

Even if Padilla does start on the DL, the move could be backdated to March 22, as long as he doesn't pitch in any Cactus League games this spring. That means Padilla could be activated as early as April 6.

Although the plan before Padilla's surgery was for him to begin the season in the bullpen, Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt also intended to build up his innings for starting because he was to be the first pitcher to move into the rotation if one of the five starters gets injured.

Now, however, there isn't time to stretch Padilla out, so even if he does return in early April, he won't be a candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation if Jon Garland isn't ready to return from his oblique strain by April 12, the first time the Dodgers would need a fifth starter.

But that also could work in Padilla's favor because it could shorten the number of innings he would need to pitch, either in spring training or on a minor league rehab assignment once the season begins, in order to be ready to be activated.

"We were going to work him as a starter, but we're kind of thinking of him more in a relief role now," Mattingly said. "Vicente is a guy we think could work out of the pen in a lot of different roles. He gives us some flexibility out there. None of our other starters are really that kind of guy, and he is."

Padilla threw off a mound Friday for the first time since his surgery and experienced no ill effects, but Mattingly said Padilla's throwing program will be adjusted if he experiences soreness at some point.

"I think the timetable with him, because of the nature of [his surgery], there is no real history [to judge by]," Mattingly said. "It's not like 500 guys have had this surgery before. I think it's just going to be a matter of how quickly he can get back. Like [trainer] Stan [Conte] said, we won't activate him one day too early or one day too late."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.