The San Diego Padres are reportedly considering trading catcher Austin Hedges. The defensive specialist is still young with a developing bat, so is now the right time to move him?
So far this offseason, rumors have far outnumbered actual trades in all of baseball, and certainly in San Diego. One rumor that just won’t die would send some combination of Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot, Austin Hedges, and a prospect to the Cleveland Indians in return for Corey Kluber.
Certainly, the acquisition of a pitcher of Kluber’s stature would immediately improve the Padres’ outlook for 2019 and provide a role model for younger pitchers. However, the Padres need to think long and hard before sending their gifted catcher out of town.
Undoubtedly, Renfroe’s power would be missed, as would Margot’s stellar defense in center field, but outfielders can be replaced far more easily than catchers. It’s the guy squatting behind the plate who has the toughest and most physically demanding job in baseball. He must possess an encyclopedic knowledge of hitters, runners, individual pitchers, and game situations. He also takes more physical abuse than any other player on the field. That skill set makes for perfect managerial material. Consider the career paths of catchers like Bruce Bochy, Mike Scioscia, A.J. Hinch, and Joe Girardi, just to name a few.
No one can deny Austin Hedges’ skill and dedication as a catcher. Known as a defensive standout at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Hedges fell to the Padres in the second round of the draft in 2011 because of his commitment to UCLA, and possible price tag.
Hedges first joined the Padres in 2015 and backed up Derek Norris. The front office may have expected the veteran to mentor the younger player, but Norris turned out not to be the mentor type (or much of a teammate overall). Thanks to a broken hamate bone in early 2016 while playing with El Paso, Hedges didn’t join the big club until close to the end of the season.
Finally, in 2017 he took over behind the plate and caught 115 games. That year, he finally had a chance to showcase his defensive talents, and his 26.7 fielding runs above average (Baseball Prospectus) topped all catchers. He also ranked second in framing runs. This year, he ranked near the top in FRRA_ADJ (which measures blocking, framing, throwing).
Hedges is no stranger to highlight reel plays. As an example, in April against the Giants, he made a diving catch of a bunt popup behind the plate, then threw a strike from his backside to second for a double play. First baseman Eric Hosmer told AJ Cassavell of MLB.com, “That’s about as tough a play as you’ll see by a catcher.”
The fact that Hedges missed 50 games early this season with right elbow tendinitis certainly held him back and may have affected his ability to pick off runners. He finished the season with a batting line of .231/.282/.429/ and 14 home runs. Although he showed a slight improvement over his previous year’s batting stats of .214/.262/.398, Hedges obviously needs further improvement. However, he actually thrived against the division rival Dodgers, batting .270/.308/.486. The fact that he could put up those numbers against LA’s pitching staff indicates that he does have the ability.
Hedges’ 90 strikeouts in 91 games certainly cause concern. However, he is hardly alone. Strikeouts have swept through all of baseball like a virus through a pre-school. Hedges’ K% of 27.6 percent over last year’s 29.3 percent has showed slight improvement. Many of his teammates also need to improve, including Wil Myers 27.4 percent, Franmil Reyes 28.1 percent, and Hunter Renfroe 24.7 percent.
In his article for the Ringer “The Art of Austin Hedges,” Michael Baumann points out that the Cardinals’ iconic catcher, Yadier Molina, on track for a probable ticket to the Hall of Fame, didn’t start hitting until he was in his late 20s. However, in 2006 on their way to a World Series Championship, St. Louis depended upon Molina behind the plate despite his batting line of .216/.274/.321. “It turns out that the best defensive catchers don’t need to hit very much at all,” concluded Bauman.
At 26, Austin Hedges obviously has room to improve with the bat, but he also has the work ethic and the desire to reach his potential. In September, AJ Cassavell of MLB.com wrote an article for MLB.com entitled, “There’s a Gold Glove Award in Austin Hedges’ future – the Padres’ pitching staff is sure of it.” The Padres need to think long and hard about the risk of losing that kind of talent at such a crucial position.