Previously on WWYRH, Jim Callis and I went toe-to-toe over two shortstop prospects, Addison Russell and Carlos Correa. This time, we're moving behind the plate to hash out which prospect we'd rather have: Austin Hedges of the Padres or the Mets' Travis d'Arnaud.
Jim has taken the offensive upside of d'Arnaud. Me? I'll go with the premium defense Hedges brings to the table.
Just like our debate over the shortstops, I don't think either one of us would try to maintain that the guy we're not picking won't be any good. And truthfully, the main reason I wouldn't take d'Arnaud is the fact that he should have graduated off of prospect lists long ago. Injuries have greatly slowed the twice-traded backstop, though he did finally get some big league time late last season. Though d'Arnaud is no doubt talented, his fragility at such a demanding position does make one pause.
I might be going out on a limb a bit with Hedges, because he is going to have to develop a more consistent bat to be considered the guy to go with behind the plate in this debate, or in any other that involves the top backstop prospects. Clearly the Padres believe he will grow offensively. They didn't take Hedges in the second round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft and sign him for $3 million to be a defensive-minded backup. While I didn't have to sign that check, I believe he's going to hit enough to become a top-tier catcher in the big leagues.
There's a lot to like about how Hedges swings the bat, even if he's only had moderate success numbers-wise. He can spray line drives to all fields, has a balanced approach and should develop more power. Keep in mind that Hedges missed nearly a month in 2013 with a hand bruise, which no question hampered his production after he returned.
Will Hedges ever be Mike Piazza? Probably not. But the point is, he doesn't have to be, because he could very well be the best defensive catcher in baseball when he establishes himself in the big leagues.
Hedges has perhaps the quickest release of just about any backstop at any level. He works on it tirelessly, both with his footwork and his release. Interestingly, Hedges doesn't specifically work on his arm strength. His arm is plenty strong enough, but he figures that if he continues to work on his feet and release, the arm strength will take care of itself. A career mark of throwing out 32 percent of would-be basestealers makes it seem like Hedges is on to something. And he likes to show off his arm in big situations. Hedges threw out Xander Bogaerts trying to steal at the Futures Game in July and gunned down two runners at second (while almost picking off a third at first base) in the Arizona Fall League's Fall Stars Game.
Hedges isn't just one of those backstops with a gun and no other strong defensive skills. His overall defensive grades are just as high. Hedges has great hands, he's agile and athletic behind the plate, he works well with pitchers and he has the kind of take-charge attitude you want at the position.
Look at what happened in Major League Baseball last year. The Cardinals made it to the World Series, not a big surprise given their success. Does anyone doubt that their recent run has a lot to do with Yadier Molina? That was an awfully young pitching staff he shepherded into and through the postseason. There's a reason Molina finished third in the National League MVP Award voting.
How about the Pirates? Maybe the stars were aligned for them to break their two-decade losing streak. Having an MVP like Andrew McCutchen didn't hurt. But anyone who doesn't think the addition of Russell Martin to that team wasn't a huge factor wasn't watching them play.
Finding catchers who can hit and be tolerated behind the plate, that's somewhat common. Conversely, there typically are defense-only types who can be serviceable backups. But finding a guy who can hit as well as make a team that much better because of his plus defensive skills? Just look around baseball and you'll see how rare that is. And that's exactly what Hedges can become.