It is generally accepted in modern baseball that versatility is a valued asset for bench players to have.  Most teams carry 12 or 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster, so the few position players on the bench have to be able to back up all eight defensive positions.  Gone are the days of a pinch hitter who can’t play defense or a third catcher; there just isn’t roster space available for him.

In spite of this, the Padres broke camp with four catchers to start the season: Austin Hedges, Christian Bethancourt, Hector Sanchez, and Luis Torrens.  It would seem illogical to give three of the five bench spots to catchers for several reasons: a lack of flexibility for manager Andy Green to set lineups, fewer ways to rest everyday payers, difficulty finding playing time for all four catchers, et cetera.

Most teams don’t even carry three backstops, let alone four, so there has to be a good reason why the Padres would eschew conventional roster construction so dramatically.  Before we get to that, let’s meet our four subjects.  (This unique catching situation is simply begging for a good nickname, and the Effectively Wild Facebook group was willing and able to oblige with suggestions like “The Four Fathers” and “The Backstop Boys.”)

 

Austin Hedges: Hedges was drafted by the Padres out of high school in 2011.  He’s a former top prospect who was promoted aggressively and debuted in 2015.  He didn’t hit much at any level that year and spent most of 2016 in AAA where he slashed .326/.353/.597.  He has been handed the keys this season as the unquestioned starter.

Christian Bethancourt: Bethancourt was probably the most talked about Padre of the 2016-17 offseason for reasons that had little to do with catching.  He’s an outstanding defensive catcher with a less than outstanding bat.  More noteworthy is that the Padres announced they would use him as a pitcher as well as a position player in 2017.  He features a mid-90s fastball but had never pitched professionally until appearing in two games on the mound last season.

Luis Torrens: Torrens, who turns 21 in May, was plucked from the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft this winter.  He has never played above A-ball and missed time due to injuries in each of the past two seasons.  The Padres will have to keep him on the active major league roster or disabled list all season or return him to the Yankees as per the rules of the Rule 5 Draft.

Hector Sanchez: Sanchez is a switch-hitting veteran backup catcher.  He signed a minor league contract with the Padres in the offseason.  He has a career slash line of .240/.276/.352 over parts of seven seasons.  This is his second stint in San Diego, having been waived by the team in May of last year.

 

This cast of catchers is undoubtedly intriguing, if not very accomplished in the major leagues.  What purpose they serve as teammates remains to be seen as the season plays out, but here are four possibilities (four being the number of the day):

The Padres Really Only Have Two Catchers

When the Christian Bethancourt Pitching Experiment was announced it was assumed this would give the Padres increased versatility.  If their backup catcher was able to pitch in mop up duty, then the club could carry an extra bench player or reliever.  With so many other catchers on the team, perhaps they don’t plan on using him as a catcher at all.  Maybe they just see him as one of their legitimate bullpen options and occasional pinch-hitter.  That’s how he’s been used early in the season.  His four appearances have included one plate appearance each and 14 batters faced as a pitcher, but no time in the field at his natural position.  

Luis Torrens is clearly not major league ready, having skipped High A, AA, and AAA.  He must remain in the majors though if he were to stay in the organization, but it’s unlikely he will see much playing time at all.  The Padres are sacrificing a roster spot to a largely unusable player so they can keep him as a prospect.

If Bethancourt and Torrens are not real catching options, then the Padres really only have two catchers they plan to use: Hedges as the starter with Sanchez backing him up.

Why this is dumb: Bethancourt signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2008 as a 16-year-old and never pitched even once in the minors.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of humans more qualified to be major league pitchers.  He’s also not very qualified as a pinch hitter with a career .265/.296/.378 slash line across all levels in ten professional seasons.  In fact, the only reason he made it to the major leagues at all is his excellent defense behind the plate.  If the Padres aren’t letting him do what he does best, it’s a disservice to Bethancourt as well as the team as a whole.  Furthermore, costing Torrens a year of development at an appropriate minor-league level can also be seen as a selfish act that is not in the long-term best interests of the player.

The Padres Are Tanking for the Draft

The 2017 Padres are not a good baseball team.  They were 68-94 in 2016.  They haven’t finished with a winning record since 2010 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2006.  As of this writing they are 5-7 so far and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects them to go 66-84 the rest of the way.  Fangraphs gives them a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs.  The outlook is unmistakably bleak.

Futility is not without benefits.  The worst team in baseball will get the first pick in the draft next season, along with the accompanying draft slot bonus pool.  If the team isn’t going to make the playoffs anyway, they may believe it’s best to lose as much as possible to ensure the top draft pick.

Why this is dumb: Even whilst trying their best, the Padres are a good bet to lose the most games in baseball.  They can field a perfectly incompetent roster without handcuffing their roster with four catchers.

The Padres Are Experimenting With Personal Catchers

The relationship between a pitcher and catcher is very special.  The catcher has to have a deep understanding of what pitches each pitcher likes to throw in any given situation.  He should also have a knowledge of the pitcher’s mechanics, philosophy, and mindset on the mound.  Naturally some pitchers get along with certain catchers better than others, and there are many pitchers throughout baseball who have had personal catchers.

Is there a hidden value to personal catchers that the Padres have discovered?  If each catcher only focused on one or two starting pitchers, maybe that would somehow increase the overall effectiveness of the battery.  With the team unlikely to make hay in the standings ,they could use this year to test out a hypothesis.

Why this is dumb: It’s highly unlikely that the value of a personal catcher outweighs the cost of having to carry so many on the roster.  Research on personal catchers has not found any conclusive benefit.  Also, one of the pitchers is Christian Bethancourt.  They could probably improve their pitching more effectively by using actual pitchers.

The Padres are Slowly Burning to the Ground

General manager A. J. Preller has a had a rocky tenure in San Diego.  In 2014-15, his first off season at the helm, he made several high profile trades to completely revamp the organization.  While this fueled preseason optimism, the team finished 74-88, followed by a 68 win season in 2016.  Preller was also suspended by Major League Baseball for failing to disclose medical information about Drew Pomeranz when trading him to the Red Sox.

Given his drama and lack of success, the Padres would be within their rights to fire Preller.  Perhaps they are planning on doing just this, but for some unknown reason are waiting until later in the season.  They could be waiting until after the draft in June or International Amateur Free Agency in July.  Maybe Preller knows this and is trying to use his last vestiges of power to screw over the team as much as possible.  His decisions to carry four catchers is not the only questionable one he has made constructing this roster.  The Padres are fielding three Rule 5 picks (Torrens, Miguel Diaz, Allen Cordoba) and a pitching staff expected to be the worst in baseball.  Their Opening Day starter was Jhoulys Chacin, who was released by the Rockies two years ago.

Why this is dumb: Actually, this isn’t dumb at all.  It would explain a lot of the curious things that are happening in San Diego this season.

There is an old saying that goes, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.”  This poem is attributed to many people including Bil Keane, Alice Morse Earle, and Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda.  The Padres’ future is certainly a mystery.  The current state of affairs may or may not be seen as a gift by San Diegans, but it certainly will be interesting to watch.  Seats are available anywhere in the stadium, though you won’t get a better spot than #1 spectator Luis Torrens.  If you know how to catch, however, send in your resume.

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