Hedges emerges as Padres' catcher

By Bill Center / San Diego Padres |

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

The Padres' future at catching became much clearer last week.

Austin Hedges is the man.

Not only did the Padres trade last year's starter, Derek Norris, to the Washington Nationals for prized Minor League pitching prospect Pedro Avila, they non-tendered reserve catcher Hector Sanchez.

The 24-year-old Hedges is the Padres' catcher, although he has yet to prove he can hit Major League pitching. And the No. 2 is Christian Bethancourt, whom the Padres are grooming to be a hybrid catcher-pitcher-outfielder.

They could add another backup catcher this offseason. That would allow them to make an even stronger commitment to developing Bethancourt for his unique role. The Padres could carry three -- or 2 1/3 - catchers in 2017.

But it is clear that Hedges, who has coveted skills behind the plate, is the Padres' catcher moving forward.

The presence of Hedges at Triple-A El Paso last season made catching one of the strongest positions in the Padres' system. But his promotion to the Major League job changes that part of the equation.

Austin Allen is the only catcher ranked among the Padres' top 30 prospects and he will likely start this season at Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore. Rocky Gale is the only other catcher currently in the system with Major League experience -- and that is limited to 11 cameo appearances in 2015.

So, Hedges is the man.

When it comes to the handling of pitchers and the ability to throw out runners, there is no question that the Padres' second-round pick in the 2011 Draft can do the job. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hedges has great defensive skills.

That was very apparent in 2015 when then 22-year-old Hedges caught in about a third of the Padres games. Pitchers, notably Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy, raved about Hedges' skills behind the plate.

Hedges threw out 16 runners on 49 stolen-base attempts. His catcher's earned run average of 3.85 was the third-best mark among Major League rookie catchers with 300 innings or more behind the plate. It was also the third-best mark ever by a Padres rookie catcher.

But Hedges hit only .168 in 137 Major League at-bats in 2015 with three homers and 11 RBIs. Hedges hit only .125 in 24 late-season at-bats last year -- lowering his Major League average to .161 in 161 at-bats with the Padres.

Defense is not an issue with Hedges and never has been. Even as a high school player in 2011 in San Juan Capistrano, some scouts said his defensive skills were close to being Major League ready. Hedges will do the job behind the plate.

The question remains offense, although he hit .326 with 28 doubles, a triple, 23 homers and 97 RBIs in just 384 at-bats with Triple-A El Paso over the 2015-2016 seasons. He also had a .361 on-base percentage and a .583 slugging percentage for a .944 OPS as a Chihuahua.

So Hedges will get a chance to show what he can do both offensively and defensively as a Padre in 2017 as a 24-year-old -- still the age when most players are reaching the Major Leagues.

Behind the plate as a catcher, Hedges is superior to Norris. Offensively, well, Norris hit only .186 last season with 14 homers and 42 RBIs.

However, catchers are more susceptible to injuries than many players. Hedges, for example, missed more than a month at El Paso last season after having surgery to remove the hook of the hamate bone in his right hand.

Bethancourt, 25, looked to be developing into a solid backup last year. But the Padres are now looking at the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder as a pitcher and outfielder as well as a catcher. Bethancourt has power. He hit six homers with 25 RBIs in just 193 at-bats last year. But his role for 2017 is undefined as the Padres investigate the "hybrid" possibilities.

So the need for a third catcher is real. Right now, there isn't a third catcher on the 40-man roster.

Prospects: The best catching prospect in the Padres system becomes the 22-year-old Allen, the Padres' fourth-round pick in the 2015 Draft out of Florida Tech. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound, left-handed hitter is ranked the Padres' 25th-best prospect by MLBPipeline.com. He hit .320 with 22 doubles, seven homers and 61 RBIs for Class A Fort Wayne in 2016 before finishing the season with Double-A San Antonio. He was a Midwest League regular-season and postseason All-Star. Could he jump Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore and start the season in San Antonio? Possibly, because there are not a lot of other options above him.

Gale, 28, is the only other catcher with Major League experience in the Padres system and hit .278 at El Paso with Hedges last year as well as splitting time with Ryan Miller at San Antonio. A.J. Kennedy shared the catching duties at Lake Elsinore last season with Jose Ruiz, who has since transitioned into a pitcher.

Deeper in the system are some interesting youngsters.

Sixteen-year-old Venezuelan Alison Quintero was considered the No. 22 prospect in all of Latin America when he signed with the Padres last July. Another Venezuelan is 18-year-old Jose Lezama, who hit .259 with a .373 on-base percentage last summer for the Rookie-level Arizona Padres. Mexico native Bryant Aragon, 18, hit .243 while moving from the Dominican Republic to the Arizona League last summer. Chris Mattison, 22, hit only .162 for Class A Short-Season Tri-City last summer after being a 16th-round pick out of Florida's Southeastern University.

Overview: Defensively, the Padres are set with Hedges behind the plate. Offense is still a big question, although the pressure to perform won't be great, as Padres catchers hit .198 in 2016 with a .253 on-base percentage and a .602 OPS. A third catcher could still be added to the mix, especially if Bethancourt is developed into a hybrid catcher-pitcher-outfielder.