The Padres' front office speaks not of "rebuilding", but of "building" a team for future continued success. The roots of this success must be firmly established throughout the minor leagues to support and replenish the major league team. Over the next several weeks, I'll work through the positions and break down the notable players in the Padres system, from the MLB roster to the most recent amateur signees.
The catcher position is a keystone of a team's defense. He manages his pitcher and calls the game. He often controls defensive alignments and is a leader on the field and in the clubhouse. This important position can be seen as a position of depth for the Padres right now.
Derek Norris: Traded from the A's along with Seth Streich for Jesse Hahn and R.J. Alvarez, Norris was one of the major 2014/2015 offseason acquisitions. His potent bat made him an All-Star in 2014, which was his second consecutive season with an OPS+ or 110 or better. 2015 saw him battle through slumps and injuries to the biggest workload of his career. While the offensive numbers declined that year, his defensive weaknesses were corrected as he went from one of the worst pitch framers in the game to one of the best, and he eschewed his reputation of weak baserunner control, leading the league by a wide margin in baserunners caught stealing. His 2016 campaign started with an extended slump, but throughout that slump he's had a low BABIP and a very strong initial velocity off his bat, suggesting hard contact that should start producing hits as the season goes on. He and manager Andy Greene understand that rest is necessary, so expect a more managed workload to allow him to produce late into the season. Considered one of the Padres' most valuable trade assets, Norris is under team control for two more seasons.
Christian Bethancourt: Traded from the Braves for Casey Kelly and Ricardo Rodriguez in the 2015/2016 offseason. Long considered the "catcher of the future" for the Braves organization, his tools gave Braves management enough confidence to depart via free agency after the 2013 season. 2014 was a disappointing year for Bethancourt, as he struggled with the bat and showed a lack of preparation and discipline behind the plate. Padres scouts still liked the raw power and strong arm enough to roll the dice on him, and so far it's looking like a promising move. He's already improved his framing skills and has impressed coaches with his bat.
Hector Sanchez: Recently claimed off waivers from the Chicago White Sox, Sanchez has seen MLB time in parts of five years, mainly as the backup catcher in San Francisco. When I say "backup", what I mean is that he was the personal catcher for Tim Lincecum. This fact sparked rumors that the signing was in preparation for a pursuit of the rehabbing pitcher, but apparently the Padres aren't interested at this time. Sanchez is an above-average defensive catcher who hasn't demonstrated an ability to hit MLB pitching well. The general perception is that he was signed to be an experienced depth player should an injury or trade occur to Bethancourt or Norris. The Padres have not made a roster move at this time to finalize the waiver claim, but he joined the team yesterday.
AAA - El Paso Chihuahuas
Austin Hedges: Drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, Hedges has long been considered one of the best defensive catcher prospects in the game. Limited playing time during his 2015 callup showed us all that the reputation was very much true. Whether it's framing, blocking pitches in the dirt, calling a game, or throwing out baserunners, he's the complete package behind the plate. His hit tool has always come in to question, but he appeared to make large strides in recent years. He started 2015 in AAA and put up an impressive .324/.392/.521 line before getting called up to the MLB team. While the defensive game made the transition nicely, he struggled offensively. New hitting coach Allen Zinter worked with him in the offseason, and he came to 2016 Spring Training showing an improved approach and surprising power. His 2016 campaign was off to a nice start in AAA, again impressing with an even better .333/.385/.583 line when a broken hamate bone on April 26th put him on the disabled list with a projected 4-6 week recovery.
Rocky Gale: Drafted in the 24th round of the 2010 draft. A career minor league catcher, Gale got a big enough cup of coffee in 2015 to get his first MLB base hit. As a solid defensive catcher with a light hit tool, he's likely to remain in the high minors with a potential call-up as an emergency backup.
Jason Hagerty: Drafted in the 5th round of the 2009 draft. Hagerty is the negative image of Gale, as a catcher who can hit at a decent clip but whose defensive skills are limited at the position. The switch-hitting catcher has hit well for the position at each level and is off to an impressive .349/.378/.651 start this year, but time is running out for the 28-year-old. He's been used at first base an increasing amount since 2014, so he may yet get a chance as a backup/utility/pinch-hitter type of the Ryan Doumit mold.
AA - San Antonio Missions
Ryan Miller: Drafted in the 14th round of the 2013 draft. A balanced player with solid tools both offensively and defensively, the 23-year-old Miller is a work in progress whose defensive tools are outpacing his hitting skills right now. Known as an athletic catcher with a strong arm, Miller appreciates the cognitive side of the position and may develop into a capable MLB catcher. Work with coaches Michael Collins in the Australian League and Ryley Westman throughout the last couple of years has further honed his defensive skills, but he's becoming more confident with the bat since his successes in Australia.
Low-A Fort Wayne TinCaps
Austin Allen: Drafted in the 4th round of the 2015 draft. The offense-first catcher got off to one of the hottest starts in all of baseball in only his first full season as a professional, just now "cooling off" to a blistering .411/.491/.522 line. His ability to stick at the position has been questioned, but the Padres are giving him a chance to stay there as long as he shows growth. He's huge for the position, at a Savador Perez-esque 6'4", 225lbs, but has the mobility to handle the role. As a left-handed power hitter, his bat would be a major addition to any lineup. His defensive issues are being addressed, as they work to get a "hitch" out of his throwing motion and improve his game-calling skills. He seems to have the right attitude and work ethic, so keep an eye on his development through the years.
Marcus Greene, Jr.: Traded along with Jon Edwards from the Texas Rangers in 2015 for Will Venable. He's known as an athletic catcher with promising power, but his usage in the low minors suggests that he may get moved off of the catcher position at some point. He underwent Tommy John surgery on June 29th, 2015, so a return to full playing time in 2016 is unlikely.
The Padres have a relative position of depth at catcher right now. Norris and Bethancourt are settling in to their roles nicely at the MLB level, which should give Hedges time to heal up and round into form without being unduly rushed. Promising prospects Miller and Allen project to become interesting players. I can envision a Hedges-Allen combo behind the plate, providing a mix of defensive wizardry and enticing power.