September 14, 2012
With the 82nd overall pick in the 2011 draft, the San Diego Padres selected Austin Hedges, a catcher out of Junipero Serra Catholic HS in southern California. While the story of his rise through the minor leagues begins there, his path to the majors started much earlier.
Brett Kay is the head coach at Junipero Serra. Kay caught in 142 minor-league games, making it to High-A before his career came to a close in 2003. He wasn’t a big leaguer, but his experience made him an excellent instructor. In 2006, Kay had the chance to coach a promising young catcher. The kid was shy and skinny, but his athleticism and skillset were obvious. Austin Hedges was already showing the makings of a top prospect.
Two years later, that shy and skinny kid was a freshman playing varsity baseball. The team already had an upperclassman entrenched at catcher, but Hedges’ athletic ability allowed him to move across the diamond. One afternoon, Junipero Serra took on Orange Lutheran, and the older catcher misplayed a few balls. Kay, who was by then coaching the varsity club, decided to give Hedges a shot. One baserunner attempted to steal on Hedges and found himself thrown out by 15 feet. That baserunner was Gerrit Cole.
Hedges’ play continued to progress through his high school years. He matured both physically and emotionally, and eventually he committed to UCLA. He was a leader and a coach on the field and showed all the makeup of a top draft pick. Following his junior year, he participated in the summer circuit and started to raise some eyebrows. His pop times were particularly impressive: Hedges consistently got the ball from his glove to second base in under 1.8 seconds, and his athleticism and defensive acumen blew people away.
Entering his senior season, Hedges and his family expected that he’d join a talented group of players at UCLA, but “when the Padres came in with their offer,” Hedges recalled, “it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
“I’m definitely very happy with the decision I made.”
The 20-year-old isn’t the only one happy with his decision. The Padres may have found a catcher who could someday force them to make difficult decisions about their current catching duo of Nick Hundley and Yasmani Grandal.
It’s long been obvious that Hedges has the makings of an elite defender, but when he was still in school, scouts had many questions about his offensive tools. “A lot of people didn’t give me a lot of credit offensively coming into the draft, but I’d like to think I had a very productive year offensively,” Hedges says. “So I like to think of myself as an offensive and defensive player.”
So far, scouts agree with him. One scout, who salivated over Hedges’ defense, noted that he has what it takes to become an average major-league hitter, batting somewhere in the .260-.270 neighborhood. Another scout agreed, noting that “[Hedges] can drive the ball to all fields and has some power, too.”
In 373 plate appearances for Fort Wayne in the Midwest League this season, the catcher posted a very respectable .279/.334/.451 line, along with 10 home runs and 28 doubles. After struggling in July, Hedges began to mash in August (.346/.369/.487), perhaps indicating that he’s mastered the level and is ready to take on High-A next season.
The Padres’ High-A affiliate is Lake Elsinore of the California League. The Cal League is notorious for what it does to offensive statistics, and Hedges should have the chance to prove he can hit in his own backyard, as Lake Elsinore is just under an hour away from where he went to high school and learned to play the game.
There are no certainties in the game of prospect evaluation, but it’s difficult to imagine Hedges not carving out a major-league career on the strength of his defense alone. (Insert Jeff Mathis joke here.) The bat could hold him back, but if it can be average (as many evaluators believe), you might just have read about a future All-Star.