It’s a Wonderful Life – If You Draft the Right Catcher

One of the long held Christmas traditions in my family while growing up involved the annual viewing of Frank Capra’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life. One of the many messages in Capra’s classic: The importance of a person to his family and friends even if it may not appear obvious at a particular moment in time.

Savings and Loan owner George Bailey, played masterfully by Jimmy Stewart, falls on hard times when his uncle accidentally misplaces a large deposit which eventually falls into the hands of Mr. Potter, the richest (and meanest) man in town. It’s Christmas eve in Bedford Falls when George Bailey contemplates suicide and “Wishes he had never been born.” Guided by his guardian angel Clarence, an alternate version of reality presents itself for George Bailey – a reality in which Bailey never existed.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Not specifically as it relates to me nor because it’s the silly season (yes – I actually started writing this about 6 weeks ago). I’ve been thinking about the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft and what life would look like for Padres fans had the Padres never signed catcher Austin Hedges.

With a strong commitment to UCLA and advisement coming from Scott Boras, it was never a slam dunk that Hedges, the 82nd pick in the 2011 June Amateur Draft would sign with the Padres. As you may recall the Padres had drafted another catcher, with the 54th pick during the same draft.

In 2011 the Padres were in the enviable position of having accumulated 6 of the first 82 selections in the draft. These picks were not without costs though. At the signing deadline in 2010 the Padres failed to ink RHP Karsten Whitson and instead watched him walk to the University of Florida*. The Padres were awarded a 1st round compensation pick (10th) in 2011 because they were unable to sign Whitson. In addition to the extra 1st round pick the Padres received 1st round supplemental picks as compensation for losing free agents Jon Garland, Yorvit Torrealba, and Kevin Correia** at the end of the 2010 season.

*Whitson is from Florida. I’m imagining he walked to the University.

** Wow. The free-agent compensation system is f*cked-up.

So with a host of picks Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod set out to continue their rebuild of what had been an utterly woeful farm system under the Towers regime. Hoyer and McLeod selected 2B Cory Spangenberg (10), RHP Joe Ross (25), RHP Michael Kelly (48), C Brett Austin (54), SS Jace Peterson 58, and C Austin Hedges (82).

Corey Spangenberg signed quickly and proceeded to tear-up Eugene. Now it was simply a matter of who else the Padres could get into the fold. Players like Joe Ross and Austin Hedges (a projected first rounder) both looked to be headed to UCLA but represented the higher ceiling type of player the Padres had long ignored under Kevin Towers (and John Moores). Coming down to the signing deadline on August 15th, 2011 the unsigned players included the pitchers, Ross and Kelly as well as the catchers, Brett Austin and Hedges.

At 9pm the Padres announced that they had signed Ross, Kelly, and Hedges, leaving only Brett Austin unsigned.

MLB.com’s Corey Brock wrote the following that night:

The Padres signed 22 of their first 23 overall Draft picks this year — and also 35 of the 53 players they selected — spending a little over $11 million, according to Padres assistant general manager Jason McLeod.

The lone remaining highly regarded player that the Padres didn’t sign was catcher Brett Austin from Providence Senior High in Matthews, N.C. He will attend North Carolina State University, despite being offered a bonus well over slot.

Austin Hedges is the prized name from that Padres draft class while others like Spangenberg, Ross, and Peterson are slowly working their way through the system.

But what if Austin Hedges had never existed (like George Bailey had not existed for that brief moment in time) and the Padres instead directed their dollars toward Brett Austin – what would today look like?

Did the Padres sign the right catcher?

A question like this is never as straightforward as it seems. A player’s development path changes when he opts for a college baseball program instead of a professional organization – the choice to attend college could be the right one for a young player or it could be a disaster.

We know what Austin Hedges is right now. He’s an athletic catcher with killer pop-times, fantastic make-up, and the leadership skills to take command of a Major League staff and play defense at the highest level right now. The questions surrounding Hedges focus primarily around his offensive potential.

So what is Brett Austin today? Where has his development taken him?

In October of 2013 Baseball America ranked their top 50 prospects for the 2014 draft and two of the top four players could be found at North Carolina State University. Neither one was named Brett Austin.

Brett Austin now enters his junior year with the Wolfpack with modest offensive totals. The switch-hitting catcher has a career total of 2 HRs during his time at N.C. State and he has yet to hit above .284 or slug higher than .369. In the college game, an environment with aluminum bats and plenty of substandard pitching, Austin has yet to distinguish himself with the bat in any substantive way.

Yet as a defender Austin has begun to stand out after a freshman season that saw him in right field regularly. His coach Elliot Avent said this about the catcher as they prepared for the 2013 College World Series in Omaha:

“If I had to name an MVP today, it would probably be Brett Austin. What he’s done behind the plate for us has been phenomenal.”

In many ways Austin sounds like . . . Austin (Hedges).

But here’s where the players diverge. Austin Hedges has been a standout defender for three years as a professional whereas Brett Austin has managed a short season of college ball as a good defender. Where both players have room to grow their offensive game, fans can at least look at Hedges and see that he’s producing more than Austin and doing it against pros.

Brett Austin is a few years older than when the Padres drafted him in 2011 and there’s a little less to dream on with his skill-set. Subsequently, Baseball America published their College Top 100 in December and Brett Austin found himself ranked . . . 88th. When all available High School players are factored into the equation Brett Austin probably goes in the 5th or 6th round this June – and let’s be honest – that ain’t bad!

Brett Austin is a rare commodity – a switch hitting catcher – and as such he has a future. As a fan I’m just glad the Padres threw an appropriate amount of money in the direction of Austin Hedges because, and you know, I’m really glad he exists.

***

I contribute to Padres Public on Thursday mornings and when I’m feeling particularly outraged by the location of statues around Petco Park. I can also be found on twitter at @AvengingJM. The dusty archives of AJM are located at avengingjm.blogspot.com

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  • USMC53

    Great post. A very enjoyable read.
    That 2011 draft could turn out to be a serious windfall with Spangenberg, Peterson, Ross, and Hedges moving up through the system the way they have. Whether they all make it to Petco or a couple end up as trade pieces, we look to get some great value from those $11 Million we spent.

  • USMC53

    Just went and checked… we also got Wisler, Andriese, Hancock, and Quackenbush in the 2011 draft. Well played, Jed Hoyer!

  • USMC53

    …and Matt Stites and Burch Smith. Good pickin’.