As you might have read, the Padres have four catchers on their 40-man roster, which is a bit unusual. Typically teams will have two catchers on the active MLB roster and a third on the 40-man for depth, and usually that guy is working in AAA. Four is slightly excessive. What does this mean as Preller & Co. work through the winter to prepare for spring training? There are many directions this can take. First, let's take a look at the current catchers on the roster:
Derek Norris: The Padres received Norrisaurus Rex before the 2015 season for Jesse Hahn and RJ Alvarez. He had a breakthrough season in 2014 and made the All-Star Game that season. In his first year for the Friars, he showed a refreshing blend of hustle and grit which endeared him to many fans. He came to the Padres with a reputation for on-base skills with some power, but defensive deficiencies - particularly holding baserunners. Opposing teams ran a lot on him, and he showed that the rumors were false by leading the league in runners thrown out. His peripherals grade out well, but there are murmurs that his game calling and receiving skills could use some refinement. He is entering his first year of arbitration and will be eligible for free agency in 2019.
Austin Hedges: Drafted by the Padres in the second round of the 2011 draft, Hedges has been labelled as the team's "Catcher of the Future" (you'll hear that phrase again) for many years. His defensive abilities and baseball IQ have been universally praised since day one. As he moved up through the minor leagues, it has been consistently apparent that his bat trails his glove, and there are concerns that his offensive skills may be a liability throughout his career. He started 2015 with an apparent offensive breakthrough, hitting .324/.392/.521 through 21 games in AAA. He received his first MLB callup in May and acclimated very well to the defensive side of the game, creating a rapport with the pitching staff and impressing the coaches with his quick adjustments. His defensive metrics shone in every measurable way in 2015. However, he failed to hit effectively, even when he was receiving regular playing time, slashing a paltry .168/.215/.248 through 56 games. He won't be eligible for arbitration until 2018 and free agency in 2022, and notably he is the only catcher on the roster with minor league options left.
Josmil Pinto: Claimed off waivers from the Minnesota Twins on November 20th, Pinto was long thought to be the long-term solution at catcher after Joe Mauer had to leave the position due to concussions. He's been known as a catcher prospect whose defense trails his bat, not unlike Norris. He was called up in August of 2013 and finished the season with a strong showing at the plate. He made the team in 2014 as the backup for Kurt Suzuki and playing some DH, but the bat didn't hold up, so he was optioned to the minors that June. After a 2015 season in the minors that didn't show a return to form at the plate, he was DFA'd by the Twins and Preller snatched him up on a major league deal. His receiving skills have been called "lazy" and he's been particularly ineffective at throwing out baserunners. This Beyond the Box Score article from 2014 dissected his defense and showed him to be well below average in just about every way. Not an enouraging profile, but there must be something that the scouts saw in him to pick him up. I haven't been able to find the terms of his contract, but I can tell you that he's on the 40-man roster and does not have any minor league options left.
Christian Bethancourt: The Padres traded Casey Kelly and young catcher Ricardo Rodriguez to the Braves on December 10, 2015 for Bethancourt. He has also long been hailed as a "Catcher of the Future", with a cannon strapped to his right shoulder and impressive bat speed. We know Preller loves "loud skills", and Bethancourt's standout skills are deafening. His arm grades out to an 80 with a capital 8, and scouts rave about his "pop time". He's shown impressive power for the position, but the contact rate has left more to be desired. After a couple of cups of coffee in 2014, he made the Braves team in 2015, only to get sent back down to AAA after some defensive mistakes and a lack of success at the plate. He was recalled in late August and finished the season with the MLB team, and underwent surgery on October 5th to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. The poor blocking, framing, and game calling skills are concerning, but the athleticism and power potential are tantalizing. He will be arbitration eligible in 2018 and won't hit free agency until 2022.
That's four catchers for two or three roster spots. How could the Padres make this work? Do they trade someone? Can anyone get sent to the minors? Could a player get moved to another position? Could someone simply get cut?
Naturally, the first reaction is that someone is likely to be traded. While Preller could flip one of the new additions, they were both "buy-low" adds, so that's unlikely. It 's much more likely that Norris or Hedges would be moved. Both showed significant value in 2015. Norris battled through injuries and slumps but showed improvement defensively while maintaining an aggressive approach at the plate and an attitude anyone would love in a dugout. Hedges' defense shined brightly and he capably handled a tough role with a workmanlike approach. Both are MLB-caliber catchers right now, with room to grow. I feel that Norris has the potential to make a more immediate impact as a capable catcher with a nice bat while Hedges is still a bit of a long-term project whose lack of offense takes some of the shine off of that impressive defense. Since the team still has major roster holes to fill (SS, LF, pitching), a trade could go a long way toward a balanced and competitive roster.
I noted above that Hedges still has minor league options. It might make sense to send him down and let him get daily at-bats while keeping the glove game sharp. After seeing how the pitchers responded when Hedges was behind the dish, I want him back there as much as possible, but they may feel that this is the most effective way to let him work on his rough edges with minimal pressure. Norris, Bethancourt and Pinto are all out of options, so they would have to clear waivers and accept assignment to get sent down. It could be argued that Bethancourt or Pinto could stand to spend time in the minors to work on defensive skills. All three have demonstrated their offensive abilities through the minors and don't have anything left to prove by beating up on PCL pitching.
A third option here is to release a player. Norris, Hedges, and Bethancourt are all far too valuable to let walk away. Pinto was picked up on waivers, so it's not completely unrealistic to think that he would be given a chance to stick around this spring and then DFA'd either to AAA or to the soup line.
...so what's the right move?
Here's where the court of public opinion has many conflicting voices. I'll plead my case and let you all tell me why I'm an idiot. I don't like the idea of trading away Norris right now. He still has three years of team control, and it can be argued that a player's max trade value is when he is two years away from free agency. Neither Hedges nor Bethancourt is ready for a full-time gig yet, and while Norris has the game for it, he might not have the stamina yet. I'd like to see Hedges start the season out in AAA, while Norris has the starting gig at catcher and Bethancourt backs him up. When Hedges first came up last year, he did a lot of side work while riding the pine, and I can envision Bethancourt doing the same. What about Pinto? I suspect that he was brought on just so they could get a good look at his skills and his coachability. I'm betting that they will DFA him during spring training and try to keep him around to try to develop his glove and turn him in to a valuable depth/trade asset down the road. In 2017, Bethancourt might be ready to be the main man with Hedges backing him up, or vice versa, and Norris gets traded after a nicer season than he just had. Regardless, it's not a bad position to have surplus talent. It's going to be interesting to see how Preller & Co. work through this one.