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Around the Horn: Padres set for changing of the guard at catcher

With Norris in DC, 24-year-old Hedges takes the reins
MLB.com @AJCassavell

With Spring Training on the horizon, MLB.com is taking an in-depth look at the 2017 Padres, breaking the team down position by position. Today we preview San Diego's catchers.

Mark Dec. 2, 2016, as a significant day in the Padres' transformation. That was the day the Austin Hedges era officially began in San Diego.

With Spring Training on the horizon, MLB.com is taking an in-depth look at the 2017 Padres, breaking the team down position by position. Today we preview San Diego's catchers.

Mark Dec. 2, 2016, as a significant day in the Padres' transformation. That was the day the Austin Hedges era officially began in San Diego.

Entering the offseason, one of the Padres' top priorities was finding a trade partner for Derek Norris. On Dec. 2, general manager A.J. Preller dealt his starting catcher of the past two seasons to Washington for pitching prospect Pedro Avila. While Avila figures to be a nice addition to the farm system, the trade was far more significant in terms of what it meant behind the plate.

It's Hedges' team now, make no mistake about it.

"We have a young catcher in Austin Hedges who has put himself in position to be our everyday guy," Preller said last month. "They don't give away Major League starting opportunities. You've got to earn it. What Hedgie's done is put himself in position to earn that job."

Barring something unforeseen in Spring Training, Hedges -- who batted .326/.353/.597 with Triple-A El Paso last year -- will win that job. That much seems even more likely with backup Christian Bethancourt also experimenting in the outfield and on the mound.

Video: PHI@SD: Bethancourt clears the bases with a doubleFirst and foremost, Hedges will need to prove he can hit Major League starting pitching. He has played only sporadically at the big league level, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. But in 178 plate appearances, Hedges has batted just .161 with three homers.

On the flip side, nobody doubts Hedges' defensive prowess, which might be tops in baseball among catchers younger than 25. His ability to handle a big league staff shouldn't be in question either. Padres pitchers have raved about working with him.

"It's going to be as much about the work he does behind the plate as the work he does at the plate with the bat in his hands," said Padres manager Andy Green. "We've looked at him for a very long time as a catcher of the future for us. That time looks like it's arisen."

The Padres' most pressing catching question revolves around how many backstops they'll fit onto the 25-man roster.

Bethancourt, whose conversion into a super-utility man is underway, is a virtual lock. He could very well be joined by 20-year-old rookie Luis Torrens.

But Torrens, who was selected out of the Yankees' organization in December's Rule 5 Draft, has never played above Class A. Per Rule 5 stipulations, if Torrens does not remain on the Major League roster for the duration of the season, he must be offered back to his former team.

It's safe to say the Padres think very highly of Torrens, having traded Minor League infielder Josh VanMeter for Torrens' Rule 5 rights. VanMeter's inclusion would seem to indicate San Diego believes Torrens can make it through the season in the Majors.

Video: Padres acquire Diaz, Torrens in Rule 5 Draft

In that regard, Bethancourt's versatility should help with the roster math. He will potentially serve as the primary backstop, as well as a fifth outfielder and an eighth reliever.

"You want to be able to bring in as many catching options as possible," said Padres general manager A.J. Preller. "It's really hard to find catching prospects, so we felt like this was a creative way to try to add one into the system."

Projected starter: Hedges

Potential backups: Torrens, Bethancourt, Hector Sanchez

Top 30 prospects: Torrens, No. 23; Austin Allen, No. 27

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

San Diego Padres, Christian Bethancourt, Austin Hedges, Luis Torrens