With two valuable young catchers on the roster, would a platoon of Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejía work for the San Diego Padres moving forward?
Mejía arrived with major league experience, excellent hit tools, a rocket arm and the title of “top-ranked catching prospect in all of baseball.”
When Mejía proceeded to slash .328/.364/.582 with seven home runs in just 31 games in Triple-A El Paso, Hedges’ grip on the starting job slipped even further. As Mejía launched two home runs in the first start of his Padres career Thursday night, Hedges may have lost that grip completely.
So, Mejía now appears to be the catcher of the future.
He projects (and has produced) as an excellent hitter in a league where you have to hit to stay on the field. He is just 22 years old and already swings a better bat than Hedges. But Hedges was once a top-ranked prospect in his own right, and is currently one of the best defensive catchers in all of Major League Baseball.
Elite defenders at premium positions don’t grow on trees, so Hedges still has plenty of value for that reason alone. It’s also important to note that Mejía isn’t a great defender right now and doesn’t project to be one in the future, so a platoon of some sort would appear to make some sense on paper. However…
Young players need to play every day in order to develop. We’ve seen it already this season with Hunter Renfroe. Being afforded the slack to work through mistakes in real-time is crucial for any hitter, let alone a 22-year-old who has the potential to be a cornerstone of the future. It’s tough to find and maintain a rhythm with the fear that an 0-for-4 one night will result in a spot on the bench the next. Hedges has already been given more or less two years in that role with middling results, so it’s definitely fair to question whether he will ever become enough of an offensive threat to justify penciling him into the lineup on a nightly basis. Mejía’s ability to switch-hit doesn’t help the case for a platoon either, as most platoons are centered around righty/lefty match-ups. Oh, and Hedges hits righties better than lefties anyway, so there’s no way it would work in the traditional sense.
A more unconventional platoon, perhaps one where Hedges only catches certain pitchers, is another option. It’s universally known that Hedges handles the Padres’ pitching staff extremely well; you’ll hear nothing but good things about him from any pitcher in the locker room. However, it’s also critical that Mejía begins to build his own chemistry with his new staff, something that can’t truly be tested without live-game reps.
The Padres are 30 games under .500 and—look away if you need to—recently became the first team in the National League to be mathematically eliminated. This last month of the season is a perfect opportunity for Mejía to continue to develop a rapport with the staff while also showing what he can do offensively. If this is the route the Padres decide to take with Mejía, and I think they should, there isn’t much room left for Hedges outside of a simple backup role. And that isn’t all bad.
The two most valuable traits off the bench, especially in today’s game, are power and defense. Those happen to be Hedges’ two biggest strengths. This suggests that he may be better suited for a backup role regardless of the presence of Mejía; a late-inning, pinch-hit home run can impact the game as much as anything a starter can do. So too can relieving the starter by catching the last few frames of an extra-inning affair, or starting the Sunday day-game following a late finish Saturday night. The front office will certainly make calls about Hedges on the trade market this offseason—that may ultimately be the best thing for both him and this ballclub. But as for this season and perhaps beyond, the Padres can feel confident about rolling out one of the best backup catchers in the league when Mejía inevitably misses some time.
To answer the original question—no, a platoon will not work. Stifling the development of the most promising catching prospect in all of baseball is not in anybody’s best interest. I do think, however, that Hedges can be equally if not more valuable in a backup role, making spot starts here and there while mentoring Mejía along the way.