The Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask: 4/8/14 Edition

This edition of “Questions You were Too Afraid To Ask” covers the Padres three-headed catcher, the inevitable emergence of Austin Hedges, a couple of minor league transactions, and, you guessed it, contract extensions.

How long will the Padres carry three catchers? Who will be the odd man out?

As Corey Brock discussed on Padres.com this past Sunday, Bud Black is trying to successfully juggle three catchers on the 25-man roster.

Most teams only carry two catchers because three simply isn’t an efficient use of roster slots when you have to field seven or eight other positions and catchers generally hit like, well, catchers. In fact, a quick scan of MLB Depth Charts reveals that only two other teams, the pitch framing obsessed New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays, currently carry three backstops, and the Blue Jays are likely to trim one soon enough.

The Padres are in a unique situation, of course. Yasmani Grandal is clearly the No. 1 catcher, but he’s making an ahead-of-schedule return from ACL surgery and isn’t able to catch back-to-back nine inning games yet. Nick Hundley is just two years removed from an age-27 breakout which led to a three-year, $9 million extension that ends after this season. (The Padres have a $5 million option for 2015.) And journeyman Rene Rivera has found a home in San Diego as a defensive specialist and Andrew Cashner’s personal catcher. To further complicate matters, the Padres can’t send Rivera or Hundley to the minor leagues without risk of losing them – Rivera because he’s out of options and Hundley because he’s surpassed five years of service time.

From Brock’s article:

San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes said the team will not keep three catchers on the active roster all season.

Knowing this won’t go on forever, who is the odd man out? Assuming Grandal regains the full-time role in the near-future, the Padres need to decide between Hundley and Rivera. Here’s the table I posted in an article on pitch framing from the offseason:

catcherprojections

Rivera is obviously limited offensively, but Hundley doesn’t project to be significantly better. If you look at catcher-based defensive numbers* for pitch framing, blocking, and base stealing, Rivera comes out nearly 35 runs better for a full season than Hundley on defense alone. While a defensive projection may not resemble quite that wide a gap, considering regression to the mean and such, Rivera’s defensive ability makes him – arguably, anyway – a more viable backup catcher than Hundley. Add in the idea that Cashner, who could be growing into a Jake Peavy-like staff ace, apparently prefers throwing to him and, well, you have your probable backup catcher in Rivera.

*Check the above linked pitch framing piece for the specific numbers.

Speaking of catchers, Austin Hedges has already reached Double-A San Antonio and this future catching logjam, specifically Hedges vs. Grandal, already has me concerned. Should the Padres avoid extending Grandal with Hedges on the fast-track?

You can file this one, hopefully anyway, in the “embarrassment of riches” file. Hedges, as you may have heard (or seen), is the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues. He’s ranked as the 18th and 27th best prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America, respectively, and both sites peg his big league arrival for 2015. In the Padres top 10, Jason Parks describes Hedges as such:

Near-elite defensive profile behind the plate; plus arm; quick release and accurate; excellent footwork; excellent receiver; strong hands and quick feet; high baseball IQ; excels at game management and battery relationship; good swing at the plate; tracks well; shows good bat speed and strength; has some pop; crazy makeup.

That’s sort of a dream profile for a catcher, at least defensively, with the bat still the only major question. Hedges reached Double-A last year at the age of 20, which is an accomplishment in itself, but his campaign – mostly spent at offense-happy High-A Lake Elsinore — didn’t completely squash the concerns about his bat. (He hit .260/.333/.390 overall in 341 PAs). For simplicity’s sake, let’s just assume that Hedges arrives in Petco next year as advertised, a transcendent talent behind the plate with an adequate offensive game.

What do the Padres do with both Grandal and Hedges, if this scenario plays out? Well, they could split time behind the plate. More than likely, though, Grandal would either slide over to first base or one of the two would be traded. The problem with moving Grandal to first, ignoring Yonder Alonso here for a second, is that he loses all of his defensive value. And, as we’ve discussed recently, he has a lot of defensive value as a pitch framing extraordinaire. (Baseball Prospectus projects him as the best pitch framer in the majors.) The positive in moving him to first is that he might be able to spot Hedges behind the dish, giving the Padres an excellent backup catcher and additional flexibility on the bench. Grandal (or Hedges) could also be dealt, likely to a team – like the Tampa Bay Rays, for example – that puts a priority on pitch framing.

Back to the original question: Should the Padres avoid an extension with Grandal due to the impending arrival of Hedges? The short answer there is “no.” The long answer is “hell no.”  The most valuable contracts in baseball, the ones that could be most easily traded for a haul of prospects, are the team-friendly extensions given out to young players. If the Padres are compelled to trade Grandal down the road, they’d be more able to extract maximum value in return if he were already signed to a nice, long extension.

The Padres recently traded for catcher Adam Moore (acquired from Kansas City for cash) and signed outfielder Jeff Francoeur to a minor league deal. Are they future Padres?

Prior to the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Adam Moore as the third best prospect in the Seattle Mariners system and the 83rd best prospect in all of baseball. Four years later and Moore is Triple-A organizational filler for the Padres, splitting time at catcher with Rocky Gale in El Paso. At this point, Moore is known as a defense-first backstop primarily because he can’t hit.

After getting his shot in 2010 with the Mariners, Moore hit .195/.230/.283 in 218 plate appearances, walking eight times and striking out 63. The prospect glow wore off quickly. Knee surgery wiped out all of 2011, and Moore has spent the last two seasons in Triple-A, moving over to the Royals organization in 2012. He hit .259/.326/.413 in 2012 and .191/.284/.405 last year.

The older scouting reports pegged Moore’s defense as an asset, but according to Baseball Prospectus’ framing/blocking numbers, he’s been nearly 30 runs below average per 7000 pitches in his abbreviated major league career. (Incidentally, it seems like all Mariners catchers are poor pitch framers.) Moore’s also caught just 17 percent of would-be base stealers in the majors.

It’s hard to call Moore a defensive liability based on 70 major league games, but it’s also hard to envision him being an asset. It probably won’t matter either way, as the Padres have three catchers on the big league roster and Austin Hedges waiting in the wings.

Jeff Francoeur was the crown jewel of the mid-2000s Atlanta Braves farm system and he burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old rookie, hitting .300 while flashing plenty of power. The holes in Francoeur’s offensive game – the on-base issues, primarily — caught up with him quickly enough, however. It took him six years after the rookie season onslaught to post an OPS+ north of .800, when he rocked 71 extra base hits in 2011 with Kansas City.

Francoeur’s still only 30 and despite hitting .226/.272/.354 over the last two seasons, he may still have something left to offer as a role player. After all, Xavier Nady hit .239/.289/.350 from 2009 through 2012 (he spent 2013 exclusively in the minors) and he’s holding down a major league job with the Padres. Francoeur’s unlikely to play a significant role on the big club with plenty of other viable outfielders in the organization, but he isn’t the worst guy to have stashed in Triple-A in case of an emergency.

Another batch of young players — Mike Trout, Jason Kipnis, Chris Archer, and Yan Gomes, specifically — were extended to team-friendly deals recently. Should we be worried that the Padres haven’t made an early season move?

Maybe. It’s been well-documented around these parts (and elsewhere) that the Padres have been slow to extend their young players – initially Chase Headley, and now a new group that consists of Jedd Gyorko, Andrew Cashner, Everth Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal, and (stretching it here) Yonder Alonso.

Two weeks ago I boldly (!) predicted that the Padres would lock up their middle infield combo of Gyorko and Cabrera during the season, and part of me felt that any extensions, were they to come this season, would happen early on. There’s something about spring training and the start of a new season that makes both team and player feel better about one another. Maybe it’s because everyone is in the best shape of their lives.

To examine when most extensions actually go down I used MLB Trade Rumors’ Extension Tracker and counted up how many deals took place in each month from 2010-2013. I only included deals that were worth at least $10 million.

ContractExtensionsByMonth

As you can see, most extensions tracked by MLBTR – 65 percent, to be exact – take place from January through April. Further, 43 percent of in-season extensions happen in April. If the Padres are going to cut a deal with any of their promising youngsters prior to the 2014/15 offseason, it’s likely to come before the end of April.

The problem for the Padres, if they fail to act soon enough, is that eventually players might start to forego signing team-friendly deals in favor of making a run at the lucrative free agent market closer to their prime. As Ben Lindbergh pointed out at BP:

Even if Wyers was right, the situation could correct itself. The fewer free agents there are, the more the good ones can expect to make. It won’t take too many massive deals for mediocre players before young extension candidates start to reconsider the wisdom of signing away their chance to hit the open market and benefit from scarcity. Every current player who signs an extension could be upping the incentive for future players to do something different.

The 2015 free agent crop looks particularly weak and that’s why Chase Headley, who might have been a relative afterthought in past free agent markets, is going to cash in big this coming winter. Baseball is flush with money and it’s being spent at an ever-increasing rate, even as the quality of free agent classes decline. If the Padres miss the boat in the extension game, Jedd Gyorko or Andrew Cashner or Everth Cabrera might decide to follow the year-to-year Headley model and try their luck in a barren free agent market.

You are encouraged to comment using an exisitng Twitter, Facebook, or Google account. Upvote comments you find helpful, and only downvote comments that do not belong. The downvote is not a 'disagree' button.

  • Jacob Guerriero

    Outstanding read. Cheers! Can we talk about Yonder Alonso though? Does the organization really project him as a serviceable 1B going forward, considering the total lack of power?

    • Dustin

      Thanks!

      I’m guessing they don’t really view him as the long-term solution at first. As you mention, it’s tough to be valuable at first without the power, and so far his on-base skills appear to be good but not great. This is a big year for him, I think, with the wrist/hand injuries hopefully behind him, he has to show some improvement with the bat.

  • GoldenBoy

    I like that the Padres are currently carrying 3 catchers, considering Grandal’s health & the fact that Maybin & Quentin are on the DL. Quentin might be back before you know it, and when that happens, I’d rather see Nady get cut over Rivera. Nady really hasn’t shown to be of much value to the team. I envision the big catcher decision will come when Maybin returns.

    As for Grandal, the Padres by no means need to prioritize an extension for him. If he has a good year, it’s almost certain that he will be dealt next offseason. He’s still under team control until 2018 and could yield a very nice return, extension or no extension. This return is entirely dependent on this year’s performance though. If he has a so-so year, I see the Padres hanging on to him in 2015 as a mentor for Hedges. And even the possibility of trading Hedges shouldn’t be discussed. The kid has way too much potential value for this team going forward.

    • Dustin

      I think the catcher decision will be made once Grandal proves the knee surgery is behind him and he’s able to essentially assume the role of a full-time catcher.

      RE an extension for Grandal: I guess it doesn’t have to be a priority. My point is just that if the Padres think Grandal is worthy of an extension, the presence of Hedges shouldn’t cause them to reconsider.

  • I’m not afraid! I’m just too jaded.