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Hedges, Mejia have Padres loaded at catcher

@AJCassavell
March 14, 2019

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres don't think you're using the right conjunction to describe their long-term catching situation. It isn't Austin Hedges or Francisco Mejía . It's Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres don't think you're using the right conjunction to describe their long-term catching situation.

It isn't Austin Hedges or Francisco Mejía .

It's Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia.

San Diego’s two young catchers have put forth a fairly epic battle for playing time this spring. Mejia has been arguably the team's best hitter in the Cactus League, posting a 1.314 OPS and seven extra-base hits. Hedges, meanwhile, has been his usual dazzling defensive self, and on Wednesday, he clubbed two homers in Tempe, bringing his own spring OPS to 1.159.

To the outside world, it's unfolding like a classic spring competition. Hedges, the four-year veteran and presumed starter, is being pushed by Mejia, the rookie and highly touted prospect. That's not how the two catchers see it.

"We're trying to win, whatever that means," Hedges said. "I want to play, because I feel like I bring a lot to the table over the course of 162 games to help us win. But ultimately, it's just about winning. That's the only goal."

Mejia echoed that sentiment.

"It's not really a competition to me," he said through a team interpreter. "We're just all focused on winning games. That's the important part, and for me, that means, ‘How can I help my pitching staff?’ ... I'm learning a lot from [Hedges]."

When San Diego landed Mejia at the Trade Deadline last summer, most speculation centered around his position. Hedges was already solidified as the catcher in San Diego, and Mejia had spent time in Cleveland at third base and in left field.

The Padres have made it clear they don’t have plans to use Mejia anywhere else. They're set at third base and in the outfield. That leaves Mejia's only path to regular at-bats blocked by Hedges.

But the dynamics of the modern catcher have changed. It's rare for any player to backstop even three-quarters of his team's games anymore. The Padres have two good young catchers. It might behoove them to keep both as fresh as possible.

Yes, Hedges wants everyday playing time. Yes, Mejia wants to be in the big leagues, and he won’t be there if he's only being used once a week.

The Padres are fine with that dynamic.

"I want Austin -- and Mejia, for that matter -- to want to catch 130, 140," said manager Andy Green. "You want your guys wired that way. At the same time, you want to create the context where your team can have its best season possible. It's entirely possible that means those guys aren't catching those number of games. But that's not been determined at this point."

Green was quick to point out that Mejia hasn't yet secured his roster place. At 23, he's nowhere close to a finished product, and he has work left to do with pitch recognition on offense and pitch framing on defense. The Padres see a lost opportunity for development if Mejia were to serve as a traditional backup to Hedges. Chris Stewart could still win the backup job.

But Mejia is clearly a part of the Padres' long-term vision. (They traded Brad Hand for him, after all.) Right now, that vision features both Mejia and Hedges.

Ideally, both could flourish given the right matchups. And the pitching staff could flourish with fresher catchers and, perhaps, personalized catchers. Plus, in the Padres' eyes, there's no one better for Mejia to learn from.

"I'm really just trying to mimic him as much as possible," Mejia said. "When he's in the game, I'm trying to replicate his movements, the way he's receiving, the way he helps his pitchers -- basically everything about the way he goes about his business."

Technically, it's a competition. Only one of the two can play on any given night, and there's no obvious platoon situation.

But even Hedges -- who has been vocal in his desire for regular playing time -- says he'll understand when he sees Mejia's name on the lineup card.

"He's proven it in the Minor Leagues, and he's proven it this spring so far," Hedges said. "Whatever helps us win ballgames, I'm in."

So is Mejia. So are the Padres.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.