Minor league catching depth flourishing for Padres

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Credit: MiLB

At one time, the San Diego Padres farm system was the best in all of baseball.

In recent years, A.J. Preller systematically traded players in the minors to upgrade the major league team. A few times, the Padres dealt very highly-touted catching prospects to get what they needed from another franchise via trade. Catching is a premium position, and generally, players who are behind the dish are coveted by teams. That is not a secret.

Despite the fact, the San Diego Padres dealt away Francisco Mejia, Austin Allen, and Blake Hunt in recent years. The team still possesses a great amount of catching depth. Mejia may not be considered a prospect, by his major league experience was minimal, and there is still upside in him. Allen was moved a few seasons ago as he was the victim of a numbers crunch. At the time, the Padres had both Austin Hedges and Franciso Mejia on the major league roster.

Preller and his staff made the difficult decision to deal Blake Hunt east despite the fact he has gotten better in each of his minor league seasons. Reports from the alternate site in 2020 were very positive on Hunt, and the Rays were able to find a hidden treasure possibly. Luis Patino may be the big name in the Blake Snell trade, but in time, the dealing of Hunt could be the big addition for Tampa Bay.

One would think the Padres system is currently bare at the catcher’s position, but that couldn’t; be farther from the truth.

Here is a look at the team’s current depth behind the plate as these five men are playing minor league baseball right now. Believe it or not, there are more young catchers who will soon begin their season in the AZL league. Not to mention those who would be playing in the DSL under normal circumstances.

Luis Campusano

The No. 1 catching prospect in the system is still around and seeing everyday action at Triple-A. Campusano played at the major league level earlier this season, but the reports were mixed. The right-handed hitter swings a very productive bat, but there are still concerns with the defense aspect of his game. Several pitchers on the Padres did not favor using Camnpusano during their starts, and the difference was noticeable when he found himself behind the dish for the Padres.

Campusano is still 22, and it is natural for his defensive game to lag behind. Quite often, catchers who are highly-regarded don’t debut at the major league level this young. It takes time to figure out the nuances of the game and the Padres hope Campusano is able to do just that this year in El Paso. There is a lot to like about Luis Campusano, and if the Padres feel inclined to move him, he could fetch a decent return. Preller and his staff will surely explore all options in their quest for a World Title.

Photo: Jorge Salgado

Jonny Homza

Drafted out of high school from the state of Alaska, Homza has taken some time to develop. The line-drive swing was always there, but the right-handed hitter added muscle and worked to iron out some timing issues at the plate. Homza was selected as a shortstop and found time at second base and third base to start his professional debut. The Padres seemed to have catching in mind for Homza as he saw time behind the dish in 2017 at the Rookie Ball level of the system.

The baseball IQ on Homza is very high, and he took to the catching position very well. In his first few years in the minors, Homza played three different positions and showed a decent bat at the plate. For the 2021 season, the Padres placed Homza in Fort Wayne, and he has flourished, putting up a .903 OPS in his first 208 plate appearances. The power is coming along as Homza owns six homers so far this season. To put that into context, he had eight homers in over 750 at-bats coming into the year. It may still take time for this 22-year-old to develop some more, but there is reason to be excited about his growth.

Brandon Valenzuela

The chances are that you do not know much about Brandon Valenzuela. That is to be expected as the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on minor league baseball for greater than one calendar year. Valenzuela is a switch-hitter from Mexico, and at the age of 20, he is starting to turn some heads around minor league baseball. He has good size and works very well with pitchers. In time, the catcher could easily be one of the top prospects in the system.

Valenzuela is playing some first base as his bat is something you want in the lineup each day. There are slight defensive concerns, but, at his age, insecurities about handling pitchers and pitch calling are totally natural. With a .789 OPS currently in Lake Elsinore, the switch-hitter is productive and finds himself consistently in the middle of the Storm lineup. He has made 28 starts behind the dish this season and will likely play his entire year in the California League.

Gilberto Vizcarra

Backing up Valenzuela in Lake Elsinore is this interesting young catching prospect. The 22-year-old from Mexicali, Mexico, put up a .751 OPS in 2019 playing for the AZL Padres. There is a lot to like about his defense, where he owns a 40% caught-stealing percentage in over 1,000 minor league innings behind the dish. Vizcarra is stout behind the dish and works very well with pitchers.

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His bat may be the key to his future in the game. There is some power in the right-handed swing. Vizcarra shows a decent eye at the plate and will take a walk, but he has trouble making contact consistently with the meaty part of the bat.

Juan Fernandez

Affectionately known as “Jimmy” among the coaching staff, this right-handed-hitter is progressing fairly well. The 22-year-old is stocky and has the look of a natural catcher. Fernandez has a bulldog-type body, like Ivan Rodriguez. The Venezuelan native is nimble behind the dish but needs some refinement with the defense. The arm is a work in progress, but Fernandez is known for his work ethic.

There is a tendency for him to pull the ball. Fernandez isn’t displaying much power with his bat, but he does possess gap-power. He has put up a .701 OPS in the first 34 games played for the Missions. Fernandez is playing in a league full of older players, so there is reason to be optimistic with his production so far. It may take time, but there is reason to believe that Juan Fernandez will one day debut in the major leagues.

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