By: Mark Collier
PHOTO CREDIT: MARK COLLIER
Catcher Francisco Meija was acquired for All Star closer Brad Hand and relief pitcher Adam Cimber at the trade deadline in July 2018, at the time the number one catching prospect in all of baseball. In 2016, Meija (as part of the Cleveland Indians Class A Lynchburg team), had a notable 50 game hitting streak which at the time, was the longest such streak in the last 66 years and speaks to his ability to consistently put the barrel on the ball as a young player. “Franky”, 24, achieved just 226 AB’s last year, splitting time with Austin Hedges and dealing with a pair of injuries but was a much improved player in the second half of the year. Most notably in August when he hit .348/.394/.606 with four homers.
The switch hitting catcher does need to improve his game management and focus behind the dish which is likely in part why the Padres end of the year interim manager Rod Barajas (and former catcher himself) was retained to help in his maturation as a player. If Meija hits like he is capable of consistently in 2020 and makes strides defensively towards the league average or more behind the plate, he immediately joins the conversation as a top 10 catcher in all of baseball which would mean the Padres investment in Mejia was worth giving up an All Star closer to get him. Meija is a free swinger but has shown the ability to get on base, hit in the clutch, and has significant power for a player of his stature.
Meija effectively passed Austin Hedges on the depth chart last year primarily due to the futility of Hedges bat . Hedges is clearly still the superior signal caller and game manager to Meija which is why he remains on the roster. Hedges greatly supports the maturation of a young developing staff and is an asset with game prep. But offensively he simply seems lost at the plate. Last season Hedges had an anemic slash line of .176/.252/.311 in 312 AB’s. Not horrible for a pitcher, but for a position player historically bad. His 312 AB’s were mercifully not enough to qualify for the all time worst seasons in batting average with Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis setting the mark in 2018 at .168. 2013 Atlanta Braves second baseman Dan Uggla and former Tigers slugger Rob Deer both are tied for the dubious honor of second place at a paltry .179 mark.
Hedges seems unlikely to significantly improve his offensive numbers unless he is willing to completely overhaul a very long swing at the plate. If he can’t provide a distinct uptick with the stick, Hedges seems less and less likely to be on the roster beyond the 2020 season and could be dealt at the trade deadline if not before. Assuming Meija hits and improves defensively like the Padres expect, Hedges will lose even more AB’s to his counterpart this season.
The Padres certainly are not short on young talent at the catcher position, which is a great luxury with so many young talented pitchers in the system. Luis Campusano, who played at Class A Lake Elsinore last year was the California League’s Co-MVP, also winning the batting title, hitting .325, and was just named among MLB Pipelines Top 100 prospects list at #50. While being the catching jewel of the system, he has caught the eye of rival organizations and has been a name prominently mentioned in trade talks. Campusano has been invited to big league camp and will get a chance to show his stuff, but is likely a couple of years away from Petco as the Padres need to see how he handles the progression from A ball to AA which is the next step for the 20 year old.
Luis Torrens, the 23-year-old catcher who was a Rule-5 pickup as you might remember from his year with the Padres in 2017, is coming off a strong campaign at AA Amarillo with a line of .300/.373/.500 and 15 HR’s. Keep an eye out for him at Petco as a reserve catcher if the Padres deal with any injuries in 2020, or if Hedges continues his struggles or is traded. He is pretty close to major league ready with more experience than most young catchers due to his year at the big league level. Blake Hunt is another name to be on the lookout for who was a Padres MLB Pipeline top 30 prospect and has shown advanced skills for his age.
The Padres are fortunate to have at least three catchers as options entering the 2020 season. However, it's also safe to say that the Padres catching position entering spring is a bit of a wild card with plenty of uncertainty simply because the Padres haven’t seen enough from Francisco Meija at the major league level to know what they truly have. If healthy, Francisco Meija has a chance in 2020 to stake his claim as the starting catcher for the San Diego Padres now and into the future.