After the 2014 season, Austin Hedges had amassed a .225/.272/.314 slash line in 532 Double-A plate appearances. There was still plenty to dream on after back-to-back disappointing years with the bat, like Hedges’ all-world defensive skill-set behind the dish and the fact that he entered the 2015 season at just 22 years of age. But, still, that bat. It needed a lot of work, so much so that Baseball America, which rated Hedges as the 27th-best prospect in the game prior to 2014, dropped him off its top-100 list entirely this year. (Baseball Prospectus remained more bullish.)
Luckily for the Padres, they were set with one of the best catcher duos in baseball after the 2014 season, with Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal providing an unexpected combination of offensive and defensive value. Set at the big league level, the Padres had plenty of time to wait on Hedges, allowing him to develop with the bat and further refine his defensive skills in the minors.
Then came the Offseason of Preller, where the new Padres’ general manager overturned the roster, dealing away both Rivera and Grandal while also acquiring, amidst the cloud of dust, a 26-year-old backstop named Derek Norris. After Tim Federowicz (also acquired via trade), the likely backup catcher, went down in spring training with a knee injury, the Padres turned to journeymen Wil Nieves for backup duties. Nieves, even ignoring his current super-small-sample (.077/.143/.308) slash line, isn’t cut out for regular work. His career OPS+ is a meager 61, and what’s left of any positive defensive value has probably evaporated. He’s 37 years old, just hanging on to a major league gig by a thread.
The lack of a true backup has forced the Padres to rely on Norris almost exclusively so far this season. He’s started 22 of the team’s first 26 games (and eight of the last nine), and he’s caught a National League leading 193 and two-thirds innings. Norris has been playing great — he’s posted a .846 OPS while pacing the Padres in doubles with 11, and he’s caught 10 attempted base thieves — but you’ve gotta wonder how well a starting catcher will hold up late in the season with such little rest. Think Salvador Perez.
— Corey Brock (@FollowThePadres) May 4, 2015
So, just last fall, Hedges finished off a miserable offensive season while the Padres had two more than capable catchers on the depth chart ahead of him. Now, just a month into the 2015 season, Hedges will make his major league debut. He’s done his part since being promoted to hitter-friendly Triple-A El Paso, hitting .343/.413/.552 with eight doubles, eight walks, and eight strikeouts in 75 plate appearances. It’s hard to believe Hedges’ bat is ready for everyday major league work based on that small sample turnaround, but it certainly isn’t a bad sign. The glove, however, is almost certainly ready, as Hedges has earned praise for all aspects of his defensive game, from his throwing ability to his pitch framing and game-calling skills.
But what, exactly, are the Padres going to do with him?
It seems most likely that the Padres will use Hedges as Norris’ backup, spelling the Padres’ starting catcher at a more frequent rate than Nieves was. The benefit here is that the Padres suddenly find themselves with an elite defensive backup at catcher, perhaps allowing them to matchup Hedges with a pitcher (Cashner, maybe?) in need of some pitch framing help or against a team that likes to steal bases. Further, they can ease him into major league plate appearances against, say, primarily left-handed starters or in hitter-friendly locales.
The downside here is that Hedges will only being playing once or twice a week, sitting on the bench when he could be — and probably should be — racking up reps against Triple-A pitching, developing his sub-par offensive game away from the pressure-packed bright lights of the majors. And what if Hedges really struggles offensively, and is eventually sent back to the minors with a .550 OPS? That’s far from an unrealistic scenario and it wouldn’t, by any means, be the end of Hedges in San Diego. But what would it do for his development? Or his confidence?
Another possible scenario is that the Padres ultimately turn to Hedges as the regular catcher, shifting Norris to first base. This seems unlikely, especially given Yonder Alonso‘s early performance at first. Norris himself isn’t a total liability behind the plate, despite the so-so framing numbers, and who knows how he’d transition to another position. And, heck, there’s always the possibility of a trade, something A.J. Preller isn’t shy about.
There are a lot more questions than answers as to how the Padres sort out Norris and Hedges right now (let alone long-term), which is why I’m going to stop trying to answer them. For now, we can sit back and enjoy Austin Hedges in major league form, a sight that’s sure to produce plenty of jaw-dropping moments as it is big league growing pains.