The Padres have four catchers on the roster. What is the plan?
It is said that when a football team has two quarterbacks, they have none. Meaning- if a team is trying to start two quarterbacks due to one not separating himself from the other, the team has no clear plan at the position. Does the same concept ring true with having too many catchers on a baseball team?
As of the end of the first weekend of Spring Training games, the Padres have four catchers on their 40-man roster — all four of which played in the big leagues just last season, three of them in San Diego.
Jorge Alfaro is the lone new guy in town, coming over from the Marlins.
So why do the Padres have so many backstops on the roster? Most teams carry two catchers with perhaps an emergency catcher elsewhere on the roster.
Victor Caratini and Austin Nola carried the majority of the load in 2021 for San Diego. Caratini appeared in 116 games while Nola struggled with injuries and appeared in 56. Luis Campusano rounds out the group as highly regarded as a solid future everyday catcher. MLB Pipeline ranks him 44th among the Top 100 prospects around baseball.
The 23-year-old got his feet wet in the big leagues last season, appearing in 11 games, and struggled mightily in his limited stint. The Padres hope, with more seasoning, he can become a bigger part of the plan with the big league club in 2022.
Nola is the assumed starter behind the plate as he should be.
The pitching staff respects Nola as a game-caller. Following one of the numerous bullpen days the Padres endured last season, reliever Craig Stammen sang Nola’s praises. “He’s great. He can change who he is based on who’s pitching,” Stammen said, “and he’s rock solid behind there, too, with a phenomenal physical skill set.” His framing is well-regarded, as he positioned himself in the 91st percentile in framing in 2020. Despite an injury-riddled 2021, he remained solid in the 74th percentile.
What sets Nola apart is his versatility and ability at the plate. He has appeared in at least one major league game at catcher, first base, second base, third base, left field, and right field. While Nola has not appeared in more than 79 games in any major league season, when he is in the lineup, his bat is a legitimate threat, a rare luxury for catchers. In 183 career games thus far, he owns a .271 average, .780 OPS, and an above-average 114 OPS+. If he is healthy, he is the best option for the Padres behind the plate this season.
The veteran backstop delivered some exciting moments for the Friars in 2021. From catching Joe Musgrove’s historic no-hitter to smashing a walk-off homer against the Reds in June, capping a memorable late-inning comeback, he quickly became a fan favorite. However, the reality of his otherwise punch-less bat set in. He went through long dry spells at the plate and finished with a lowly .227 average, .632 OPS, and 78 OPS+.
If things remain status-quo in San Diego, expect Caratini to be the backup catcher. He is Padres’ ace Yu Darvish’s personal receiver, from whom the Friars need a big year. That carries heavyweight in making roster decisions. So long as Nola and Caratini remain healthy, expect both of them to be on the roster.
The cases for Jorge Alfaro and Luis Campusano
For the two remaining catchers, it comes down to how valuable they can be as a possible bat off the bench or ability to play an extra position. In Alfaro’s case, he has experience playing left field, which just so happens to be San Diego’s most glaring remaining need at this point. In 21 games in left field for Miami last year, he earned an even 0 Defensive Runs Saved. Along with his ability in the outfield, he is prone to the occasional home run, having hit 18 in a season as recently as 2019.
He already has a big fly this spring, swatting one in the opening game on Friday. Alfaro’s hopes of making the team likely rely on whether or not the Padres make a significant move to make an upgrade in the outfield. He becomes less valuable if the Friars can acquire a better bat than Jurickson Profar to man left field. If general manager A.J. Preller fails to make a move there, expect Alfaro to make the roster as a backup left fielder and a reserve catcher.
If the Padres break camp with Nola and Caratini healthy as well as an upgrade in left field, Alfaro likely gets put on waivers. He is without minor league options.
Campusano has the largest hill to climb to break camp with the big league club. Ironically, he may be the most gifted of the bunch, as San Diego’s No. 2-rated prospect. He may benefit from at least another few months in Triple-A, where he had a .906 OPS and 122 wRC+ in 81 games last year. Then at the first sign of trouble or injury with the big league club, he can swoop in and continue his development at baseball’s highest level. For now, his place is likely in El Paso.
He needs to improve the small yet important aspects of being a catcher, especially on defense. Plus, his bat needs to make another jump to handle big-league pitching. It won’t be long before Campusano is at Petco Park for good. However, it very likely won’t be on Opening Day, barring injuries above him on the depth chart.