The Age of Hedges

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.

Enter Hedges:

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.

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  • cindyLowe

    Definitely excited to see Hedges but I share some of your concerns. I’m actually surprised at how good Norris is at blocking balls in the dirt and seems decent at throwing out runners.

    • Norris has been a surprise defensively, for the most part, particularly (as you mention) throwing out base runners. Heck, he’s been a surprise at the plate, too.

      The only downside with Norris is that his pitch-framing isn’t very good, or at least any better than average, and that’s a big drop off compared to Grandal/Rivera from last year.

  • Tom Waits

    The Padres won’t (shouldn’t) ever sit Norris against LHP. He treats them like chew toys. Giving those at-bats to Hedges to make him more comfortable is punishing the team.

    This doesn’t seem complicated at all. Norris rests once every X games and we have a better backup than Nieves, because even if he doesn’t hit — at all — Hedges will catch the damn ball.

    No impact on 1b. Our backup 1b is Myers, not Norris.

    If a better catching option than Hedges becomes available on the trade market, he’s back in AAA. Developing Hedges and preserving his prospect luster are not significant considerations to Preller. What is significant to him is making the 2015 team better, even if only slightly.

    • Good point about Norris vs. lefties, Tom. But why couldn’t the Padres move Norris to first and catch Hedges occasional vs. lefties? Sit Alonso and leave Myers in center. That might give them the best lineup while also allowing Hedges to catch a bit more often.

      I guess my only concern with Hedges as strictly a once-a-week backup catcher is how that might negatively impact his development. Sure, Preller *really* wants to win now, but at some point you have to balance winning now with winning in 2016 or ’17. Hedges should be a major part of future success, whether as catcher or as trade bait, and it seems somewhat shortsighted to mess up his development/value to make 10 starts as a backup catcher in 2015.

      But I totally get your points and I understand that Preller’s focused on short-term success, and this kind of move fits the bill on that front.

      • Tom Waits

        They could move Norris to 1b, but since he’s played one game there as a major leaguer, and another eight years ago in Low A, it seems fraught with danger. You’re also not really resting him. First base may feel like a vacation compared to catcher, but it’s not taking the day off.

        I have some suspicions about Preller. One of them is that his starting 2016 and 2017 catcher is Derek Norris, not Austin Hedges. He’s not doodling 2017 lineups with Hedges in the 7 hole. Another is that he doesn’t think 10-15 starts will hurt Hedges’ trade value, regardless of the batting line.

      • True, but then again Preller doesn’t appear to value defense — Wil Myers certainly isn’t a center fielder — so Norris at first doesn’t seem that crazy. Then again, if he doesn’t value defense much, like you mention, Hedges might not be around that long anyway.

        Maybe it’s simpler than I made it, and Hedges is just here strictly to backup. I don’t know, I’m sort of skeptical of that plan, but hey, I’m excited to see Hedges play even if it’s only sparingly.

      • Tom Waits

        He doesn’t put a premium on defense, but Myers had at least played a lot of outfield before.

        Preller’s calling everybody right now offering the likes of Erlin, Spangenberg, and Mazzoni for a backup C.

      • I just can’t believe he can’t find an adequate backup that has the present talent somewhere in the neighborhood of a 22-year-old Hedges, just to allow Hedges to continue to develop in the minors until they decide what they really want to do with him. Someone like Federowicz has to be available somewhere out there, especially given Preller’s willingness to deal prospects for whatever he wants.

      • Tom Waits

        If that were so, we’re not having this discussion. One thing we know is that Preller gets after things. Any stones left unturned were ones he didn’t want to pick up in the first place.

        Other teams may be asking only for the absolute best of what’s left on the farm. Is Preller willing to trade Renfroe, Liriano, Gettys, Casey Kelly, or Hedges himself for Federowicz? If that’s what other GMs have asked for, it makes more sense to use the kid who’s free.

        Somebody decent may pop up on waivers or the asking price may come down. If that happens Hedges goes back to AAA on the next flight. He could be gone this time tomorrow. They’ve already burned his 2015 option, he can come back up again and again as needed.

        It also seems clear that Preller seeks every advantage he can get. He doesn’t want somebody in the neighborhood of Hedges. He wants somebody who’s a near-lock to be better than Hedges. If that somebody isn’t available, he’s not settling for less.

      • Fair enough. I’m not necessarily against the move, per se, and I like a lot of what Preller has done so far. Just slightly concerned that using Hedges as a major league backup isn’t the best way to go about his development, and that at some point sacrificing so much for the present might come back to bite the Padres.

        Overall, though, I’m excited to see Hedges play a bit, and more than that, I’m excited to watch the Padres hopefully remain competitive this year. As you mentioned earlier, it takes some time to get used to a “win-now” approach.

  • Geoff Hancock

    There is absolutely no question that the Padres need someone capable to back up Norris. And Nieves isn’t it. We are all enjoying watching Norris mash pitching, but he won’t be doing that in September at this rate. That said, I’m concerned about how many at bats this is taking away from Hedges that he would otherwise be receiving in El Paso. Truthfully, I completely forgot about Federowicz. Perhaps Hedges is here until Tim returns around the ASB?

    • Good point about Federowicz’s return. Good chance the Padres hope Hedges holds his own until then as the backup, and then they ship him back to Triple-A for more refinement if Fed returns healthy.

      Then again, predicting what Preller plans on doing is pretty difficult.

      • Sac Bunt Chris

        Or, if Hedges struggles he goes back to AAA, but if he hits and plays all-world defense he’s traded for Starlin Castro. #Prellered

  • schlom

    It does seem like a crazy move unless the Padres think that Hedges is never really going to hit so there really isn’t any point in giving him AB’s at El Paso when he can better help the team with his defense. Or maybe they are showcasing him for a trade?

    • Could be either of those. More likely, like others have mentioned, it’s simpler than I’ve made it. Hedges might just be up for backup duty because he’s the best current option, and the Padres want to win now.

      • Tom Waits

        We Padre fans have been conditioned to think about future value for so long it’s almost instinctive.

        This move is unlike what we’ve seen since 98. The competitive teams of 2004-2007 and 2010 didn’t seek major league improvement this relentlessly. Preller is a SkyNet Terminator programmed for baseball. Does this player improve the team? Yes. Is the price acceptable? Yes. Get him. Move on.

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