Campusano a backup whom pitchers will back

March 26th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The past week brought two major injury scares for Padres catcher  -- first a hit by pitch that broke his nose, then a foul ball that caught his throwing hand.

And yet, with the team set to break camp on Monday, there are two reasons for optimism about the Padres’ catching situation.

The first: Nola appears to have avoided any significant damage. His right hand is fine, and his nose required only three stitches and a few days of rest while the swelling subsided.

The second: If Nola were to miss time, or perhaps see limited action in the early stages of the season, the team has come away impressed by ’s spring.

The Padres, of course, have long been waiting for Campusano's breakout. Once a highly touted prospect, he has played all of 28 big league games with a .188 career batting average across three seasons.

But this spring, Campusano is second on the team with three home runs. He boosted his OPS to 1.037 with a 2-for-3 day Sunday in the Padres' 5-5 tie with the Mariners. But the truth is the Padres have never been concerned about Campusano's bat. He is a young catcher being thrust into a team with a veteran pitching staff, squarely in win-now mode.

"For any young player to be put in an environment like that, it can be tough," said Padres right-hander . "But especially a young catcher. ... You can tell he's getting comfortable back there."

The Padres weren’t always certain that was the case last season. Campusano's playing time was sporadic. When he was with the big league club, the team often carried three catchers, including Jorge Alfaro. In the thick of a playoff race, Campusano played sparingly. He rates well as a pitch-framer and boasts a solid arm. But Campusano’s game-calling needed work. He wasn't so familiar with the intricacies of the pitchers he worked with.

The Padres value that relationship immensely. As such, Nola started every game in the postseason last year. Campusano was on the playoff roster for all three rounds but didn't get an at-bat.

Nonetheless, it was a valuable experience, clarifying the steps Campusano needed to take moving forward. Padres decision makers have touted the investment of Campusano in learning the arsenals and preferences of those veteran pitchers this spring.

"I've been comfortable since last year, the last time I got called up," Campusano said. "I've just been kind of taking it all in, working with guys."

Campusano is quick to say that this year's camp really doesn't feel all that different. But his batterymates have noticed a change.

"His energy is just better, it's been really good," Musgrove said. "You can just tell he's more comfortable."

On Friday, Campusano was thrust into game action in Tempe, catching against the Angels. In Snell's final tune-up for Opening Day, he pitched six scoreless innings with Campusano behind the plate, and you can bet the Padres took note.

"That was a big day for him," manager Bob Melvin said.

Big day for the organization, really. They expect a fully healthy Nola for Opening Day. But at the time, they weren't sure. If Nola weren’t available, it would be Campusano’s job to lose.

San Diego let Alfaro walk during the offseason, essentially handing the No. 2 role to Campusano. The team expects Campusano to begin the season with, say, a couple starts per week. If he continues to prove himself, he could earn more playing time as the year progresses, perhaps finding himself in an even split with Nola.

"It'd be great," Melvin said. "This is one of our guys, too, that came up in the system. You want guys on your team that come up as Padres. We don't have too many of those.

"This is the biggest opportunity he's ever had to not only make the team but to have a significant role, as well. Everything he's doing right now would suggest he will."

Luis Campusano heads into the regular season as the Padres' No. 2 catcher.Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres

OK, so it’s time to ask that question again -- the one the Padres have asked several times before: Is this the year Campusano breaks out?

Even-keel, as ever, Campusano insisted he doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself.

"Just do what the game's asking you to do," Campusano said. "That's really it. Keep it simple. I feel good. Feel good with my catching, hitting, all of that. … We’ll see. You know how baseball is. We're just going to have to see."