The catching position changed greatly for the San Diego Padres in 2020, and the trend continues for the new year as Victor Caratini will likely make the team this coming spring.
In the 2020 season, both Hedges and Mejia largely flailed at the plate for the Padres. They started the season going a combined 0-for-27 and went seven games without a hit. To put that in perspective, in 2019, it took Padre pitchers nine games and an 0-for-14 stretch before recording a hit.
Hedges was shipped to the Indians as a part of the trade deadline deal that brought Mike Clevinger to San Diego. In his last season with the Padres, he posted a 64 OPS+ and dropped to the 60th percentile after being the 100th percentile the season before.
Mejia was just traded away as part of the package that landed Blake Snell for the Padres. He performed poorly in his last season as a Padre, managing to get only three hits in 39 at-bats, and finished the season with a -11 OPS+.
Needless to say, the Padres’ catching was holding the offense back, especially in a season that saw designated hitters replace pitcher at-bats. San Diego general manager A.J. Preller started to fix this issue by acquiring right-handed-hitting Austin Nola from the Mariners. Nola finished 2020 with a .273/.353/.472 slash and a 129 OPS+, providing a large bump from an offensive perspective. On top of that, he finished in the 90th percentile in framing. With club control until 2026, he clearly became the future starter for the Padres.
Going into this offseason, it was clear that the Padres needed to fill the backup catcher role. A.J. Preller answered that question while by trading for Victor Caratini in the Yu Darvish trade. By no means was Caratini an add on to this trade, nor did he come because he was preferred catcher by Darvish.
“We’ve had interest in Victor for a few years now,” Preller said to reporters shortly after the trade. “I think he’s been a guy that, just on his own, we feel like is a quality catching option for us.”
Caratini is a switch-hitting catcher that possesses some elite framing abilities. He will remain under team control through the 2023 season. In that time, it’s expected he will catch for Yu Darvish and serve as the backup to Nola.
In 2019 Caratini’s righty/lefty splits were pretty close, with a .798 OPS against right-handed pitchers and a .775 OPS against left-handed pitchers. In 2020, those splits drastically changed when he hit for a .597 OPS vs. righties and .892 OPS vs. lefties.
Looking at Austin Nola’s 2020 splits, he has a big gap in the opposite direction, a .930 OPS against righties and a .603 OPS against lefties. Much like Caratini, Nola’s 2019 splits are a lot closer together. With the dramatic difference in production, the question is raised if they are better off as a platoon instead of just a starter and backup. 2020 provides a lot smaller sample size, so only more games played will show if they will hit like their 2019 or 2020 selves.
The Padres have a lot of faith that this tandem can lock down the catching spot for quite a few years, and they have made serious bets on it. The Padres have traded away Austin Allen, Austin Hedges, Luis Torrens, Francisco Mejia, and Blake Hunt since the 2019 offseason. That leaves little of the team’s previous catching depth in place to cover for an injury or bad performance.
The next catcher in the Padres’ current hierarchy would be Luis Campusano, the No. 46 overall prospect according to MLB Pipeline. He played just one game in 2020 before suffering a wrist sprain that sidelined him for the rest of the year. Then in October, he was arrested on suspicion of felony marijuana possession in Georgia. With no resolution to the charge at this time, his ability to play baseball in 2021 is unclear. However, Preller has indicated that he expects Campusano to be ready for the 2021 Spring Training.
After Campusano, Fangraphs list Jonny Homza and Juan Fernandez as the next catching prospects in line for the Padres. Neither of those two has played above Single-A baseball. This leads me to believe that Preller will sign a few catchers to minor-league deals to fill in some of the depth. It is also expected that upcoming drafts and international signings will be used to fill in this very top-heavy catching core in the Padres’ system.