Mejia's hot bat could lead to more reps in LF

Catcher's role could evolve beyond splitting time behind dish

August 27th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- Francisco Mejia is a catcher. The Padres want to make that very clear. Right now, he's their starting catcher, too, and there's a good chance it stays that way for a long time.

But Mejia is not a flawless catcher. He does some things very well -- namely throwing and game-calling. But there's plenty that the Padres would like to see him improve upon. Mejia’s framing numbers aren't good, and he seems to have a better rapport with certain pitchers than others.

Mejia is still only 23 years old, and the Padres think he has ample time to make necessary improvements. That's why they want to make it clear that he's a catcher -- because Mejia won't be catching every game. Sometimes, like in Sunday's win over the Red Sox, he'll be in left field.

Since his promotion to the big league club earlier this season, Mejia and backup Austin Hedges have split time, with Mejia receiving roughly 60 percent of the starts behind the plate. The Padres like the production that they're getting from both catchers in that timeshare.

But Mejia's bat is simply too good to leave out of the starting lineup on certain days. Take Sunday for instance. The Padres wanted Hedges catching Joey Lucchesi, but Mejia's offensive skill set aligned perfectly with the matchup against Boston lefty Brian Johnson.

So, Mejia, who is hitting .379/.429/.655 in August, played left field for the fourth time this season and the second time in a week. He roped an RBI single in the first and went 1-for-3 before he was pulled for a defensive replacement after five innings.

It won't be the last time that the Padres employ that strategy. But there's a reason they aren't explicitly referring to Mejia as a part-time outfielder: They want the switch-hitting rookie focusing all his efforts on his improvements behind the plate.

There will be days when Mejia starts in left field, but the club thinks that he's athletic enough to handle the position cold. He rarely gets pregame reps there. So what if it hurts his outfield defense? If Mejia can shore up his defense behind the plate, it's worth it.

Mejia played 28 games in the outfield in the Indians' system last season before he was dealt to San Diego. He reportedly wasn't enamored with playing outfield, though it seems that Mejia has softened his tone.

"I think any time I'm able to get on the field, it's good," Mejia said through an interpreter. "If I can help the team, it's good."

Part of Mejia's enthusiasm is undoubtedly tied to the circumstances. He's still San Diego's starting catcher, and if he plays in the outfield once a week, it only means more playing time.

In Mejia's eyes, he isn't technically an outfielder -- just a catcher who has played there on occasion.

"I don't think that's necessarily what we talked about at the beginning, in terms of what the role would look like," Mejia said. "But when there's an emergency, or if it makes sense on that given day, then of course I'd be open to it."

It's entirely possible that Mejia's role with the Padres evolves over time. If he makes strides defensively, perhaps the split is closer to 70/30 behind the plate next season. If he doesn't, maybe he plays more frequently in the outfield. (That, of course, is dependent upon the other bats in the Padres' outfield.)

But right now, Mejia is a catcher, and the Padres want you to know that.

Except, he's so productive a catcher, he's turned himself into a part-time outfielder, too.