The Padres have opened their Spring Training activities, and they have questions to answer all around the field. Between the players on the 40-man roster and the non-roster invitees, there are intriguing stories everywhere you look. Let’s ponder who we’ll see throughout the season at each post, starting behind the plate.
Current 40-man roster members: Austin Hedges, Christian Bethancourt, Luis Torrens
Non-roster invitees: Tony Cruz, Rocky Gale, Stephen McGee, Hector Sanchez
When the Padres traded Derek Norris to Washington last December, they unofficially announced the dawning of the Age of Austin Hedges. The “catcher of the future” is now the catcher of the present. His defensive skills will immediately make him an elite defender in the league, and hopes are high that simply by having his receiving, blocking, and game management skills in the game, he will make the pitching and defense better. On the first day of his fifth year in the Padres’ major league camp he was tasked with taking a leadership role, which is asking a lot for such a green player, but all indications suggest that he’s ready for the role. The only lingering questions are whether the bat that put up tremendous numbers in El Paso the last two seasons will come with him to the bigs. Even if he struggles with the bat this season, his defense should keep him behind the dish for a long time.
Christian Bethancourt is a human Swiss Army knife. Once considered among the best catching prospects in the game, the power bat and cannon arm haven’t been rounded out with the other skills as scouts may have wished. As a result, auditions on the mound and in the field have opened some new opportunities for him. The relief pitching project continues into spring training, and his entire time in the Panamanian winter league was spent either as a pitcher, designated hitter, or in left field. He’s a member of the catchers group in spring training, but he’ll see time on the mound and in the field as well. This unique versatility affords roster flexibility that could let the team take some risks.
Enter Luis Torrens. The former Yankees prospect brings a reputation of elite defensive talent combined with the offensive tools to suggest that some day he could be a nice player. Signed at age 16 out of Venezuela, Torrens was converted from shortstop to catcher early in his development, but a torn labrum sidelined him for all of 2015. A solid bounceback season in 2016 was promising, but he will need to grow up quickly if the kid who’s never played above single-A ball will survive the season on the MLB roster. The Padres traded infielder Josh VanMeter for the rights to acquire Torrens, so the team has already invested more than the typical Rule 5 flier. That investment suggests that they have every intent to find a way to hang on to the promising young receiver.
Joining these three in camp are veterans Tony Cruz, Hector Sanchez, Stephen McGee, and Rocky Gale. The first two are tenured MLB veteran backup catchers. Cruz has spent most of his career behind Yadier Molina in St. Louis, while Sanchez was Tim Lincecum’s personal catcher and Buster Posey’s understudy with the Giants. McGee, 26, was signed as a minor league free agent after spending his career to date in the Angels organization, and the 28-year-old Gale has been a stalwart in the Padres system, earning a cup of coffee with the Padres last season. The four will likely vie for starting roles in El Paso and San Antonio.
Anointing Hedges with the Padres’ starting role is the easy part this spring. Discerning who will back him up isn’t so clear. If Christian Bethancourt held the same role as he did a year ago, it would be simple, but right now he might be the Most Interesting Man in Baseball. Complicating matters is Rule 5 draftee Luis Torrens, a highly-skilled, woefully under-experienced prospect in a demanding role. Hedges started 80 games behind the plate last year, 86 in 2015, and 104 in 2014, so expecting more than 100 or so starts over the season is ambitious. The other 60 starts or so need to be spread out, but how? The logical tactic may be to schedule Bethancourt’s catching and pitching duties such that he catches roughly 40% of the starts, the balance going to Hedges, while Torrens is deployed as a late-game replacement to minimize exposure to leverage situations, at least until he proves capable. A big advantage to this alignment is that the starting catcher can be substituted without fear of having to resort to an emergency catcher in the case of injury to the backup.
An argument has been made that benching a developing player like Torrens may stunt his growth, but working with MLB pitchers and coaches in bullpen exercises and drills should only sharpen the defensive skills. If they can carry him through the season, the barely-20-year-old catcher can go back to the minors to hone the defense while catching up on aggregate at-bats with plenty of time to work his way back to the Show.
2017 will be an odd season for the Padres. Using a utility catcher/pitcher/outfielder and a wunderkind third-stringer is just one way that Preller & Green can keep the Padres weird. Stay tuned as we go around the horn to check out the rest of the positions this week!