Throughout the 2014 season, the San Diego Padres had a bit of a platoon sort of thing going on at the catcher position, with Rene Rivera, Yasmani Grandal and Nick Hundley all splitting time behind the plate. When Hundley was traded in the middle of the season, the split was down to just Rivera and Grandal.
However, immediately following the conclusion of the 2014 season, it was pretty clear change were going to be made. Those changes involved shipping out both Grandal and Rivera, in deals that netted the Padres Wil Myers and Matt Kemp, and also acquiring Derek Norris, in a deal that sent young right hander Jesse Hahn to Oakland.
In just one year, the Padres had completely changed their catching crew. Going into the 2015 season, Derek Norris was set to be the starter backed up by Wil Nieves. However, young catching prodigy Austin Hedges was waiting in the minor leagues. When Nieves struggled early in the season, the Padres decided to pull the trigger, releasing Nieves and calling up Hedges to be the full-time backup.
Hedges stayed in that role for a majority of the 2015 season, slashing .168/.215/.248 in 152 plate appearances over 56 games. Despite his offensive struggles, Hedges showed what an impactful player he can be defensively.
Just when Padre fans thought the Padres catching situation was finally figured out, the team went out and acquired young catcher Christian Bethancourt from the Atlanta Braves. Now the Padres once again go into a season with multiple catchers, and multiple question marks surrounding those players. Will Derek Norris play a little less than last year, a season in which he seemed to break down by the end? Will Christian Bethancourt win the backup job? Or the most important question mark of all, What does the acquisition of Bethancourt mean for Austin Hedges and his MLB future.
All these questions will be discussed, but first Hedges first season in the big leagues must be discussed at greater length. Based on Hedges poor offensive showing in 2015, it seems pretty clear that he was not ready to be a big leaguer last year. While his defensive skills have long been some of the best in the entire minor leagues, Hedges offensive skill set has lagged behind. To put it lightly, the Padres may have really set back Hedges development by bringing him up as the backup last season.
If a player is deemed ready for the major leagues, calling him up to be a backup and play every fourth or fifth day is not a real logical strategy. Throughout last season, fans and pundits alike questioned the Padres decision to call up Hedges, and questioned how much him not getting the playing time was affecting his development. In hindsight, it seems Hedges was not ready to play in the big leagues, and not playing on a daily basis set back his development. Instead of getting the playing time in the minor leagues, Hedges was sitting on the bench, playing at most every fifth day.
At this point, there is no point to discuss 2015 any further. The past is in the past and any damage done to Hedges development is done and over with. Now the Padres, and we as fans, can only look forward to 2016 and beyond. And Hedges career now looks cloudier than ever before.
Going into the 2016 season, Hedges looks to be third on the catching totem pole for the Padres. While Hedges has long been at the center of trade discussions, it seems unlikely that any of those talks will come to fruition at this point. Despite the trade for Bethancourt, the Padres still appear to be at least somewhat invested in the future of Austin Hedges. So where does that leave Hedges in 2016?
To be honest here, the acquisition of Christian Bethancourt may be the best thing for Austin Hedges going forward. Considering Bethancourt has no more minor league options, he will likely start the season as Norris’ backup. As there is no real need to carry three catchers at the big league level, this leaves Hedges as the odd man out. Because Hedges still has minor league options left, he will likely spend a significant portion of the 2016 season in the minor leagues. Given his struggles at the big league level last season, getting more time for development in Triple A may be the best thing for Hedges.
At this point it is pretty clear what type of player Hedges is. He is a glove first catcher who still has a lot of work to do to be able to hit enough at the big league level. Following a truly terrible rookie season at the plate, Hedges needs to return to the minor leagues in 2016 to improve upon his offensive skill set. The trade of Bethancourt further confuses the Padres catching situation in 2016 and beyond, but it should be seen as a smart acquisition. The Padres now have the strong backup they wanted and needed in 2015, and also can allow Hedges to further develop in Triple A. The Padres have a lot of catchers. But that’s never been a bad thing.