San Diego Padres: Who Will Back Up Austin Hedges?

SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 16: Clayton Richard
SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 16: Clayton Richard /

By all accounts, Austin Hedges will be starting behind the plate on Opening Day. Let’s explore possible options for who could fill the role as the San Diego Padres backup catcher.

The San Diego Padres’ recent acquisition of first baseman Eric Hosmer intensifies competition for spots on the 25-man roster in both the infield and outfield. In the meantime, the Padres added an additional catcher, former Dodger A.J. Ellis, to audition for the job of backing up Austin Hedges. He will compete against Rocky Gale, Raffy Lopez, Luis Torrens, Stephen McGee and Austin Allen.

Hedges has been known for his defense since the Padres drafted him in 2011. This off-season he dedicated himself to improving his anemic batting stats of 214/.262/.398. He did hit 18 home runs but obviously needs to improve his on-base and strikeout percentage of 29.3.

However, the San Diego Padres value Hedges first and foremost for his skills behind the plate, and he has received rave reviews from the pitching staff. Last year Baseball Prospectus ranked him first among all catchers in fielding runs above average at 26.7. He also ranked second in framing runs at 20.8 and eighth in caught-stealing.

But Hedges can’t squat behind the plate for 162 games and needs a more able backstop than he had last year when Rule-5 draftee 21-year-old Luis Torrens and veteran Hector Sanchez shared the role. Torrens, originally drafted as a shortstop by the Yankees, appeared in 56 games for the Padres and struggled offensively and defensively.

It could come down to Gale vs. Ellis to be backup catcher for the San Diego Padres

Rocky Gale has been a mainstay for the Padres in the minor leagues since he was drafted in 2010. He’s experienced only brief action with the big club, in 2015 for 13 games, and last year, three games. In 14 games with the Padres, Gale hit his first major league home run but his batting line of .100/.100/.400/.500 made Hedges’s stats look good by comparison.

Before the Padres signed the almost 37-year-old A.J. Ellis, Gale appeared to be the front-runner for the backup job. Ellis Played for the Dodgers for nine years before being traded in August 2016. He brings a career batting line of .237/.337/.353/.690.

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Known as Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher, both cried when they got the news that LA had traded Ellis to the Philadelphia Phillies for Carlos Ruiz.

Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times questioned the move, writing “Was it really worth upsetting the best pitcher on the planet over a couple of extra hits against left-handed pitchers in the 35 remaining regular-season games?”

Kershaw obviously has not forgotten how to pitch without Ellis, but his faith in the backstop should certainly enter into the Padres’ decision-making process.

How does Raffy Lopez fit into the puzzle for the San Diego Padres?

The San Diego Padres recently signed 30-year-old Raffy Lopez to a minor league contract. He appeared in a career-high 24 games in 2017 with the Blue Jays. Drafted by the Cubs in 2011, he has played a total of 39 games in big leagues, batting .194/.277/.375/.652 with a fielding percentage of .983.

In 2016 the Padres signed Stephen McGee, now 27, to a minor league contract, and he played for Double-A San Antonio last year batting .252/.387/.409/.795. During his time in the bus leagues, he’s compiled a .987 FLD%.

In his first draft with the Padres, general manager A.J. Preller chose catcher Austin Allen in the fourth round. Now 24, Allen played for Lake Elsinore last year where he batted .283/.353/.497 with 22 home runs and 81 RBI.  A large human at 6-4 and 225 pounds, many scouts predict Allen will move from the catcher position to first base.

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Preller and the San Diego Padres will have to balance defense and offense when choosing a backup catcher. However, veteran A.J. Ellis brings a seal of approval from Clayton Kershaw, which should be hard to ignore. His experience could prove invaluable to Hedges who will be in only his second year as big league backstop, and, in my opinion, it’s his job to lose.