The San Diego Padres have solid depth at the catching position presently, a position that is weak around the league.
Derek Norris, Austin Hedges, Christian Bethancourt, and Hector Sanchez are all capable of starting a major league baseball game behind the dish. Norris is presently the starting catcher, but there are tons of rumors swirling that the Padres are looking to move him this off-season.
If and when Norris is dealt, the new starting catcher will surely be Hedges, who is very highly touted. Before the 2014 season, Hedges was ranked as high as the #18 prospect (Baseball Prospectus) in all of baseball. The right-handed hitter was drafted out of high school in 2011 when the Padres made him their #2 selection out of Junipero Serra high school in California.
Hedges growth offensively has come slowly, but his breakout year in 2016 at the Triple-A level indicates he may be ready to swing the bat with authority in the majors. His time is now, and the Padres are more than willing to give him the opportunity to blossom.
The Padres are built for success for a long period of time. The current roster has nobody over the age of 30 on it, and the franchise is absolutely loaded with teenage talent from their recent international league spending spree. Hedges fits perfectly for the long haul, as, by the time the pitching talent reaches the major league level, Hedges will be in his prime. His talent will help guide young pitchers and his bat should provide a solid presence in the lineup.
The Padres could conceivably start the season with Hedges, Bethancourt, and Sanchez on the roster. Bethancourt has been working from the mound in the winter leagues and could be one of the most unique players in 2017 as he attempts to become the game’s first hybrid player at the major league level. Bethancourt will play some outfield and catch and he will also throw some out of the bullpen, provided he can make the necessary growth in the winter and spring. He will be a fun player to watch in 2017 if he can make the transition. Sanchez, with the trade of Brett Wallace, could see some time as Wil Myers‘ backup at first base. He swung the bat exceptionally well last season and the switch hitting catcher could be a viable option at first base, as well as some behind the dish.
Major League Baseball is moving towards a more flexible lineup in which players can play multiple positions in order to maximize their team’s ability to win. Reigning N.L. MVP Kris Bryant played first base, third base, and outfield for the Cubs this season. The league is evolving. The Padres are evolving as well, and so is their thought process. Austin Hedges headlines a young offensive team that will take the field in 2017. Let’s review a bit about Hedges and see what he brings to the table on a daily basis.
When talking about this young man, the first thing everyone automatically speaks about is his defensive prowess. Hedges has quick feet in the box and is extremely nimble for his size. He is also blessed with a rocket arm, and has thrown out 34% (160-420) of would-be base stealers in his minor league career. That is a fantastic rate to throw out base runners, and he has done that in over 300 games in the minor leagues. Amazingly, Hedges has kept the exact same steal rate in the majors, as he has thrown out 18 of 53 runners for a 34% average. To put that into perspective, Ivan Rodriguez, who is considered one of the best defensive catchers in the game, threw out 31% of his base stealers over his entire career. If Hedges can keep up this rate, he will truly be in elite company. Framing pitches and getting strikes that are just out of the zone is another thing that Hedges excels at. He will definitely help a young staff, as the Padres are loaded with minor league arms waiting for guidance. His defense is quite simply elite.
Since he was very young, pitchers have been really comfortable throwing to him. That is really rare because it generally takes time for catchers to find their groove when it comes to calling a game and becoming a defensive presence. Hedges is the opposite as far as growth goes, as he is a defense-first catcher presently. Usually, young catchers are offense-first and need to start learning the defensive nuances of the game. That could be an advantage to the Padres as they presently do not know what he is capable of with the bat. He had a great offensive year in El Paso in 2016 and could finally be rounding the corner when it comes to swinging the bat with consistency. Either way, the calmness and veteran-type way he goes about his business are rare for someone of his age.
Hedges is still only 24 years old, and with that youth comes a mystery as far as his ability. He has an extremely high ceiling. It has always been proclaimed that if his bat develops, he is a perennial all-star. That may be the case, as he is widely regarded for his defense. You have to figure that at the very least, Hedges will be an everyday catcher because of his defense alone. It is that special. However, his bat is coming along nicely and his youth still dictates we haven’t seen the best from this young backstop. He could take his game to a whole new level and we could be seeing a superstar born in San Diego. His young age tells you that the sky is the limit as far as his growth goes.
In his brief major league career, Hedges has struck out 45 times in 161 at bats and hit just .161 in 64 games. Most of those numbers were earned in the 2015 season when he played sporadically. The Padres really hurt his offensive production that year as they came ill-prepared for the season at the catcher position, and had no viable backup for Derek Norris. Wil Nieves was signed after Tim Federowicz hurt himself in the spring, but Nieves was not a viable option behind the plate and he was released eventually. Hedges was needed at the major league level and that time sitting on the bench certainly stunted his growth to some degree. He hit .168 in 137 at bats for the Padres in 2015, slugging three homers and driving in 11 runs. Some will argue he had the opportunity to watch a group of veterans and learn from them at the major league level. That may be a positive to some degree, but you really want your young players to get at bats. The offense is getting better, but he still has a ways to go.
It’s probably not fair to list him here for this, but the fact is Hedges does need experience to round out his game. The Padres did stunt his growth a bit in 2015, and he did have a hamate bone injury last season that cost him a couple of months. But the experience will come with time, and you should expect to see some growing pains along the way. These mistakes and errors are natural, as you learn more about yourself in the game of baseball in defeat than you do in success. Hedges has the attitude and work ethic to get past any issues, though, so I do not expect these growing pains to last too long. He is a talented youth that the Padres are lucky to have in order to build their organization around. It just may take some time for him to fully adjust to the speed of the game at the major league level. The Padres have the time. Hedges will get plenty of opportunity in 2017.
Putting the ball in play consistently
Again, his negatives mainly revolve around his ability to swing the bat. Austin Hedges will probably never be an offensive force the way a Buster Posey or Mike Piazza is capable of being behind the plate, but he is more than able to be a well-rounded catcher along the lines of Johnny Bench or Ivan Rodriguez. In 82 games and 313 at bats in El Paso, he slugged 21 home runs and drove in 82 runs. Yes, El Paso is a hitter-friendly ball park, but he also amassed a .353 on base percentage, which indicates he is starting to recognize pitches much more effectively. Still, that is in Triple-A, and there needs to be this kind of growth for him to stick in the major leagues. At this point, he would have to completely fail at the plate for the team to send him down. His defense is so strong that Hedges just needs to put the ball in play with regularity in order to preserve a spot in the Padres’ everyday lineup.
With Wil Myers, Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, and Austin Hedges, the Padres have an excellent group of young offensive players to build the team around. It is truly an exciting time to be a Padres fan. Austin Hedges has a lot going for him right now. He is coming off a great offensive year and he is surrounded by players that he grew up in the organization with. The young catcher is fresh off a Triple-A playoff run in which the Chihuahuas won a PCL Championship. That type of building of chemistry will go a long way to the success of the Padres. Austin Hedges will be right in the middle of that, as he helps guide a young crop of pitchers that are currently being cultivated in the minors. As for 2017, Hedges should be able to play 125-plus games and he will display double-digit home run power. His batting average and on base percentage could range a lot as he finds himself at the plate. The growth of Hedges will be interesting to watch this coming season, as players like the young catcher will dictate exactly how far the Padres go in the near future.