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With a forthcoming 40-man roster crunch, a stacked farm system, and an active depth chart still littered with question marks, AJ Preller is going to have a full offseason agenda. With 2020 set as something of a make-or-break year for this organization’s leadership, this winter could bring drastic, keep-my-job kinds of moves from the 6th-year GM out of Cornell.
Could we see another massive free agent signing a la Manny Machado? Gerritt Cole would certainly look nice in San Diego brown.
Or, perhaps more feasibly, could we see one of the team’s prized prospect jewels traded for a Noah Syndergaard-type? While a youngster like Luis Patino would certainly fetch a nice return on the trade market, Preller has shown little inclination toward trading his signed-and-developed prospects.
Or, maybe, just maybe, Preller might prune a bit of fat from his 40-man roster and trade from one of the team’s few positions of depth. If Preller were to go such a route, there may be no place better to pick from than the team’s catching reserves.
When Preller traded All-Star closer Brad Hand and sidearmer Adam Cimber to the Indians in exchance for Francisco Mejia in 2018, he essentially sacrificed 1⁄3 of an effective bullpen. Since the trade, Hand and Cimber have provided Cleveland with the following:
80 innings of 3.04 ERA pitching (Hand)
71 innings of 4.44 ERA pitching (Cimber)
Cimber hasn’t been amazing, but, taken together, those are a lot of good bullpen innings—innings that a GM doesn’t sacrifice unless he feels like he’s getting a building block in return.
For his part, Mejia has, when healthy, indeed looked the part of a building block this year. After returning to the squad on June 18th this year, the 23-year-old switch hitter produced a .298/.354/.503 batting line with 8 home runs in 49 games. His defense is a work-in-progress, but most metrics peg him as only slightly below-average behind the dish.
Today also marks the callup of one Luis Torrens, the former 2016 Rule V draftee who has spent the better part of two years honing his craft in the minors. After a respectable showing with Lake Elsinore in 2018, Torrens boldly asserted himself with a .300/.373/.500 line in the Texas League this season—becoming one of the key cogs in the lineup of the champion San Antonio Sod Poddles in the process.
Elsewhere in the organization, Luis Campusano was recently named MVP of the California League, and Baseball America named 25-year-old Austin Allen one of it’s Triple-A All-Stars for 2019. Any way you slice it, the Padres organization is flush with catching depth.
That brings us to Austin Hedges. A draftee of the Padres in the second round of the 2011 amateur draft, Hedges has gotten the lion’s share of starts at catcher since the beginning of 2017. Though he is in the midst of the worst season of his career offensively, his top-flight defense is the catalyst behind a strong 1.6 WAR figure through 97 games. Over the last three years, Hedges has accrued an even 6.0 WAR, indicating that he has been—despite the limitations with the stick—a respectable big league regular.
That production is nice, but, for the reasons illustrated below, Hedges is quite possibly going to be providing that production for another team next season.
Teams In Need
This offseason, something like 15%-25% of all teams are going to be looking for replacements or upgrades at the catcher position. Here’s a look at some teams that could have interest in plugging Hedges in at “C”.
Rangers : -3.1 WAR in 2019 from Jeff Mathis, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Jose Trevino, and Tim Federowicz
The Rangers surprised many this year by hanging in contention until the season’s midway point, and their 74-77 record entering play today is still much better than most experts anticipated. One thing holding them back from getting over the hump? Well, here’s video of what they’ve been receiving from their battery this year:
The production offered from a combination of Mathis, Kiner-Falefa, Trevino, and Fed-Ex has been absolutely useless in 2019 and has, cumulatively, probably cost the Rangers several wins. Hedges is today a much better defender than the formerly formidable Mathis. Might the club be interested in parting with pitching prospect Joe Palumbo—currently ranked 6th in the Texas system by MLB Pipeline—in a deal for Hedges?
Rockies: -1.1 WAR from Tony Wolters, Chris Iannetta, Drew Butera, and Dom Nunez
Intra-division trades are rare, but could Preller feel comfortable trading with the cellar-dwelling Rox? Wolters has logged a nice-on-the-surface .272 batting average in 2019, but park-adjusted measures like wRC+ peg him as a significantly below-average (66 wRC+) performer. Iannetta is so far over-the-hill, he can’t even see it anymore. They don’t have a single catcher in their Top 30 prospect list. Could Preller pry away relief prospect and former second round pick Ben Bowden, who offers a high-90s fastball and has already reached Triple-A?
Tigers: -2.7 WAR from Grayson Greiner, Bobby Wilson, Jake Rogers, and John Hicks.
Rogers is only 24 and the team’s 12th-ranked prospect, but his awful showing at Triple-A and MLB (.115.227.260 in 112 at-bats) this year could have them looking for a more established option. Hedges only comes with two years of control, but could they value his ability to handle a young pitching staff? It’s hard to quantify a catcher’s effect on a pitching staff, but it’s worth noting that the Padres have three under-26 starters who have, at the least, proven serviceable with Hedges behind the signs. With prospects like Casey Mize and Matt Manning likely to hit the bigs next year, Hedges could be a perfect mentor. Young righty projects like Beau Burrows or Kyle Funkhouser could make sense in a return package.
Brewers: 5.9 WAR from Yasmani Grandal and Manny Pina
The Grandal signing has been an absolute coup for the Milwaukee front office, providing a .249/.380/.476 line with 27 homers this year after signing a one-year, $18.25MM deal with a mutual 2020 option this past offseason. Grandal is likely to walk, reducing Milwaukee to Pina and 24-year-old Jacob Nottingham at catcher. Prospect Mario Feliciano probably needs another two years of development before being ready for prime time, so Hedges could be a perfect bridge for the win-now Brew Crew. Could Preller try to buy low on infielder Travis Shaw? Shaw is just a year removed from a 30-homer season, but has scuffled through a .155 season this year. If Preller doesn’t feel confident in the Urias/France competition at second, Shaw could be a nice bench piece to have on hand. Otherwise, would Milwaukee be willing to move on from former pseudo-ace Jimmy Nelson?
Braves: 3.0 WAR in 2019 from Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann
Flowers (34) and McCann (35) have been resoundingly effective for the dominant Braves in ‘19, but Flowers is a possibility to depart in free agency. Prospect catcher Shea Langeliers is coming down the pike, but probably won’t be ready until 2022. Maybe pitcher Huascar Ynoa or speedster CF Justin Dean could suit up in Amarillo colors next year?
Better That The Rest
All of these teams will be looking for catching help this offseason. However, chances are that only one of them will be able to make a free agent signing who would represent a superior option to Hedges.
Yasmani Grandal, 31, is likely to opt out of his contract with Milwaukee in search of a big payday. He’s likely to get it after a strange trip through free agency in ‘18.
Outside of Grandal, here are the other top free agent catching options this offseason, in terms of 2019 WAR:
Jason Castro (33)
Tyler Flowers (34)
Robinson Chirinos (36)
Castro, Flowers, and Chirinos are all good pros, but each is past 33 years old. For a club looking for upside or reliability, Hedges would certainly represent a safer option. Beyond that, each of these players will likely cost $4MM or more on the open market, so Hedges’ contract becomes something of an attractive asset in comparison.
The Padres are likely to have a sizable list of suitors for Hedges in the event that Preller chooses to make him available. As a young, useful player with two years of control—playing a position that San Diego has well in hand—Hedges could be the Padre most likely to move this offseason.