Examining the Padres’ catching depth.
Most Padre fans already know of the trade; Brad Hand and Adam Cimber were sent to the Cleveland Indians for top catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Ranked no. 15 (overall) on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list, Mejia was immediately slotted in at no. 3 in a loaded Padres’ farm system.
With Mejia here and with the Padres front office declaring that he will be utilized as a catcher, what does that mean for the rest of the catchers within the system?
Austin Hedges is one of the first names to come to mind. The defensive-minded catcher has looked well behind the dish, but has also struggled with the bat. Hedges has compiled a .226/.280/.361 batting line, while seeing his ISO drop from .183 in 2017 to .135. It also doesn’t help that he has had an uptick in his K% with a 32.9%, despite a slight increase in his BB% (a small jump from 5.5% in 2017 to a 6.3% in 2018).
Hedges has been praised for his ability to call games behind the dish as well and is well regarded for his framing skills. Since coming off the DL, he has looked more polished at the plate. Mejia, meanwhile, is known as a bat-first catcher, with his hitting tools far outclassing his fielding tools. A potential platoon could form when Mejia arrives in the majors, with Mejia taking the bulk of the starts due to his offensive prowess and Hedges substituting in during the late innings of a game or spot starting for his defensive prowess. The two budding catchers could become one of the strongest catching platoons if everything lines up properly.
AJ Ellis, the veteran catcher who has provided leadership and some hitting relief when Hedges went down due to injuries, is a free agent after this year. The Padres value his leadership so much that they may go with three catchers on the roster at some point in 2018. That would be similar to 2017 when they fielded Hedges, Hector Sanchez and Rule 5 pick Luis Torrens on the Opening Day roster. Technically, the team fielded four catchers as Christian Bethancourt took a spot as well, but he served as an experimental relief pitcher in a project that worked so well, Bethancourt was ousted to Triple-A after four relief appearances and now plays for the Milwaukee Brewers on their Triple-A team.
This brings us to the fates of Raffy Lopez and Brett Nicholas, two catchers currently in Triple-A. Lopez has already spent time with the big league club, but hasn’t done much to warrant playing time, slashing a .176/.265/.284 while collecting three home runs. Most of his time came in response to Hedges’ injury, and he was promptly sent down once Hedges returned from his injury.
Nicholas, meanwhile, has been hitting very well in Triple-A, collecting a .306/.368/.538 batting line while mashing 15 homers. He has thrown out 14 basestealers out of 41 and is also capable of manning first base. With the addition of Mejia, one or both catchers may not be with the Padres organization come the end of September. If the Padres were to base on performance, Lopez would be getting his pink slip while Nicholas would remain in El Paso as depth.
The chain reaction goes further down the farm system as well. Offensive stud Austin Allen has currently been hammering Double-A pitching what with his .308/.363/.546 batting line and 18 long balls. While he has slightly cut down on his K rate (21.1% in 2017 to 20.1% in 2018), he has also seen a drop in his BB rate (8.5% in 2017 to 7.4% in 2018). However, Allen is now blocked thanks to Mejia and Hedges in front of him and it is unlikely that he would get playing time with the two upper-tier prospects ahead of him. Because of this, San Diego can effectively use him as trade bait in their quest to acquire a front-end starter or a corner bat, putting him in a package deal with other prospects for a starter like Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays or Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets. It is a harsh reality, but a trade would get Allen a much clearer path to The Show.
Of course, what does this mean for the younger guys below Allen? Players like Luis Campusano, Blake Hunt and Luis Torrens are still honing their craft in the lower realms of the minors and now face an even steeper hill to make it to the majors, or in Torrens’ case, back to the majors. While yes, they can also be used as trade bait in a package, what is more important is that they now have time. The Padres do not have to rush their development and can now take their time in evaluating these young backstops and improve every aspect of their game. In time, these youngsters have the potential to become as heralded as Mejia in terms of prospect status and could very well don a Padres jersey.
Francisco Mejia was acquired by the Padres to be a starter, but his arrival in San Diego will have effects on those both younger and older than him. His arrival means that one or both of AJ Ellis or Raffy Lopez will become free agents, clearing spots on the 40-man roster to protect one of many young players from the Rule 5 Draft. What is certain though, is that Mejia will be given plenty of chances to succeed at the major league level.