Int'l splash signee Salas a rare 'total-package catcher'

January 18th, 2023

SAN DIEGO -- Ethan Salas stood at a corner locker in the Padres' home clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, grinning from ear to ear, his visit to Petco Park a resounding success.

"San Diego is beautiful," said the 16-year-old Venezuelan backstop, the prize of this year's international free-agent class, fresh off landing a record-setting bonus. "I love it here. I'm here to stay. I'm here to win a World Series."

There are, of course, a few steps Salas must take before he can call San Diego home. He signed with the Padres on Sunday as the international signing window opened -- a $5.6 million deal that stands as the highest since international spending pools were capped six years ago.

Salas will likely begin his pro career at the Arizona Rookie League this season, and his impact on the big league club won't be felt for a few more years. But that hasn’t stopped the Padres from dreaming of him.

"I don't want to put a limit on Ethan Salas," said Padres scouting director Chris Kemp.

A smooth-swinging lefty hitter, Salas is regarded as a rare five-tool catcher. At the plate, he blends patience with power. Behind the plate, he's sound defensively with a big-time arm. He boasts decent speed, too.

But as much as anything else, Salas draws rave reviews for his makeup.

"I take my job seriously," Salas said. "I take it as a leader, and as a catcher, you've got to be that leader on the field."

His grandfather, father and uncle all played professionally, and his brother, Jose Jr., is currently the No. 5-ranked prospect in the Marlins' system per MLB Pipeline.

In fact, it was Jose Salas Jr. who led the Padres to Ethan in the first place. Kemp took note of a 13-year-old Ethan when the team had originally scouted Jose. Even then, Kemp had an inkling of what was to come.

"It's his overall makeup," Kemp said. "It's his baseball IQ, real leadership ability, obviously the bloodlines, and I love the swing. He's kind of the total-package catcher. It's just rare. This is my ninth year doing international scouting and, for us, this is the most interesting guy we've scouted."

Salas' arrival should go a long way toward helping the Padres fortify their farm system. It's been largely depleted after a couple years' worth of trades. But while it may lack depth, the top of that group -- Salas, shortstop Jackson Merrill and right-hander Dylan Lesko -- remains strong.

Of course, Salas' $5.6 million bonus is also notable because the Padres opened the window with a base signing pool of $5,825,500. By committing such a heavy chunk to Salas, the team's other options are limited.

It’s worth it for Salas, Kemp said. Plus, any players signed for $10,000 or less do not count against a team's bonus pool, and Kemp noted that the team's international class has grown to about two dozen.

"There's a lot of talent internationally that is still not being evaluated properly or seen in the right way," Kemp said. "So, I like some of the $10,000 guys we got. ... The talent versus the bonus sometimes -- there can be some value there."

"That's kind of the fun part," Kemp added. "We're undertaking that part right now. "I have a feeling we'll get a couple of big leaguers out of that group."

Maybe so. But the jewel of the class is undoubtedly Salas, who evaluators say is advanced well beyond his age.

Salas, whose father had spent time as a coach in winter ball in Venezuela, even caught a game for Aguilas del Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League this year -- a 16-year-old among players mostly in their 20s and 30s. He backstopped 5 2/3 no-hit innings and eight shutout frames.

Coveted by 29 other teams, Salas said his decision to sign with San Diego was an easy one.

“It's such exciting times,” he said. “The team is so fun; it's a beautiful city. Who doesn't want to be a Padre? It's a special place.”

And if all goes according to plan, Salas will be calling it his hometown soon enough.