17-year-old Salas catching on quickly and ready to show it on big stage

March 14th, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For quite a few reasons, Ethan Salas' first Major League camp was a resounding success. He was a 17-year-old flanked by veterans, some twice his age. And Salas held his own.

In nine plate appearances, he tallied a single, an opposite-field double and a walk. He backstopped some of the Padres' most exciting young pitchers and even caught a few big leaguers. At no point was Salas overmatched or out of his depth -- whether in the bullpens, on a back field or at Peoria Stadium.

But the real reason big league camp was such a success in Salas' eyes?

He got to see it. He got to live it.

"I got to spend a lot of time with big league guys," Salas said earlier this week. "Really, I just learned how to carry myself."

How did he learn that?

"You just see the difference," Salas said. "Going back into Minor League camp, you see how different things are. You see how Minor Leaguers carry themselves, and you see how big leaguers carry themselves -- you see why guys are where they're at, and you see why some guys aren't where they want to be."

Salas, in no uncertain terms, wants to be a big leaguer. As the Padres' top prospect and MLB Pipeline's No. 8 overall, he has all the makings of a big leaguer. Particularly the work ethic.

One team evaluator recalled an afternoon in late January when he thought the players had all left the team's complex. He heard swings in the cage, and his curiosity was piqued. There was Salas, after taking a full round of BP that morning, frustrated because he didn't like the way his swing felt.

On Friday, Salas takes center stage as perhaps the most exciting player in a game full of exciting young players. Prospects from the Padres and Mariners are slated to square off in MLB's inaugural Spring Breakout at 1:10 p.m. PT on MLB Network.

"Ready to compete," Salas said. "Ready to go up against them and their best. It should be fun."

Particularly given the arms Salas is likely to catch. The Padres are expected to send a pair of top 100 prospects to the mound in Robby Snelling (No. 36 overall) and Dylan Lesko (No. 56). Adam Mazur, Ryan Bergert and Austin Krob -- all Top 15 Padres prospects -- could pitch as well.

Salas, of course, has already caught that entire group. He progressed through the system at an unprecedented pace last season. He became the first 16-year-old to play full-season pro ball since Julio Urías had done so a decade ago.

Then, he moved to High-A and eventually Double-A, where he took part in San Antonio's playoff run. That was by design. Salas was promoted alongside those highly ranked pitching prospects. Playing meaningful games, Salas developed a rapport with that group.

"Those experiences with those guys, getting to work with them later in the season was really beneficial going into this spring,” Salas said. “And overall, me as a catcher, I have to have good relationships. If the org thinks we're the guys who are going to work together for a long time, it's really important that we establish that early. And I think we did. I love all those guys that we have in there. I think they're beasts."

There were plenty around the baseball world who wondered if the Padres were stunting Salas’ development by moving him so quickly. Internally, the Padres didn’t really have doubts.

That mostly came down to Salas’ ability to handle failure. They could test him, they said, because they knew he wouldn’t shy away from being challenged.

Now, 14 months after he signed, Salas is one of the best prospects in all of baseball. He’s a longshot to break through in 2024. But if he does so in ‘25, he could become the first 18-year-old catcher in the big leagues since Brian Milner in 1978. If so, Salas says being thrown into the fire will have only prepared him.

“You just make adjustments based on what happened last year,” Salas said. “Just keep getting better at all the little things. The season's long. So now I know how to eat better, how to sleep better, how to recover better. All these things that I didn't know last year, it's just going to help me this year. Now I have an idea of what a season looks like. … I just need to go out and play more.”