The San Diego Padres continue to have a catching conundrum.
Since San Diego Padres’ general manager A.J. Preller traded for catcher Francisco Mejia in July 2018, the team has grappled with a catcher conundrum. Would the Padres depend upon one of the top defensive backstops in the game or the newcomer who could actually put bat to the ball?
The dilemma persists and will intensify as Mejia rejoins the team after a stint on the disabled list with an injured right thumb. Luis Torrens also remains an option. However, his limited playing time in Mejia’s absence indicates the team doesn’t consider him a viable replacement for either. In four games, he batted .167/286/.333/.619. In Torrens’ total of 143 AB in three years, he’s batted .168/.252/.217/.468, OPS+ 28 , WAR -1.1.
None of the Padres’ current options resemble the second coming of Johnny Bench (.267/.342/.476/.817). Nor do any match the two-way skills of the Philadelphia Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto, who ranks high in defense (especially pitch framing and DRS), threw out 47 percent of runners and also boasted an OPS+ of 152.
A catcher has a unique and challenging job, both physically and mentally. Try squatting and maneuvering more than 200 times in about three hours while blocking balls in the dirt, then coming out of a crouch to throw out a runner or maneuvering to nab a pop fly in foul territory. Also factor in the mental element of the job. The only participant facing the field, a catcher must be aware of the in-game situation, the count, each opponent’s proclivities on a 3-2 count, Every base runners propensity to steal, as well as each umpires individual strike zone. The list goes on and on.
Obviously dissatisfied with Hedges as the primary catcher, in July 2018, Preller bet big on the 22-year-old Mejia, who ranked 15th according to MLB Pipeline overall and was considered the top catcher. To pry the switch-hitting, strong-armed catcher from the Cleveland Indians, the Padres gave up closer Brad Hand and 22-year-old Adam Cimber.
Both Hand and Cimber came out of nowhere. Hand, a waiver claim from the Miami Marlins in 2016, became one of the top relievers in the game, thanks in part to his wicked slider. In 41 appearances in 2018, he averaged 13.2 strikeouts per nine and sported an ERA of 3.05. Although other teams had tried to trade for Hand, the Padres chose to keep the side arming right-hander and to give him a three-year extension. Cimber, a pleasant surprise coming out of spring training that year, became one of the top rookie relievers in baseball.
Valued more for his bat than his glove at the time of the trade, some evaluators considered Mejia a better option in the outfield. But both Mejia and the Padres envisioned him behind the plate.
Despite the addition of Mejia, the Padres again looked around to upgrade the catcher position in the 2019 offseason. That year’s catching corps combined for a batting line of .212/.278/.349, with 53 RBI and 18 homers. One option would have been Wilson Contreras, who was being shopped by the Chicago Cubs. However, the offensive-minded Contreras and his -1 DRS obviously couldn’t come close to Hedges 22 DRS.
At the time, Preller also mused about the changes in all of Major League Baseball with fewer catchers entrusted to the vast majority of games. This year, the front office envisioned a platoon situation with Mejia starting more games, but Hedges being used as a defensive replacement. Before his thumb injury, Mejia did have slightly more plate appearances than Hedges.
In the meantime, though, Hedges has not been the usual black hole at the end of the lineup. In 14 games leading up to the third game against the Houston Astros (which Torrens caught), Hedges batted .233/.329/.533 a vast improvement, although hardly earth-shaking. He recorded his first four walks, reduced his swing percentage from 46 to 38 percent, and even laid down an MLB-leading five sacrifice bunts.
“Over the last two weeks…I love the way he’s working counts,” manager Jayce Tingler told Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune on August 23rd. “He’s swinging less…He’s working deep in counts, and he’s advancing runners…If he wants to continue to play quite a bit, that’s exactly the right road map.”
Although Hedge’s improvements at the plate represent a small sample size, they do indicate a change in attitude. He’s been acutely aware of his shortcomings and has made constant adjustments. Is it possible that at the age of 28, Hedges has made peace with his bat? After all, Yadier Molina didn’t find his stroke until he was in his late 20s. Even so, the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals trusted Molina in 2006 despite his .216/.274/.321 batting line.
With half the truncated season over, the Padres 18-13 record puts the team in line for a Wild Card spot. Sorting out the catching conundrum will be just many of the challenges the front office faces.