'Love a challenge,' says Salas, in camp at 17

February 22nd, 2024

This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell's Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

If weren't the 17-year-old in big league camp that everyone's talking about, you'd really never know that he's a 17-year-old in big league camp.

At least, that's the assessment of those who have worked closely with the Padres' No. 1 prospect over the past few weeks.

"He's really just so natural with it at this point," said lefty Robby Snelling, the team's No. 3 prospect, who has thrown to Salas in several live settings this spring. "He doesn't act like a normal 17-year-old. He receives just as well as anybody else I've thrown to. I really don't think about the age when we get into it. We're both trying to do the same thing. In my opinion, age doesn't really matter, if you're capable of doing it at this high of a level."

Said righty Adam Mazur, the Padres' No. 8 prospect: "He definitely doesn't come across like [a 17-year-old]. You can tell, he's reading hitters, he's looking at all the little things. He calls a great game, really good at receiving, really good at knowing what a pitcher needs in his set-up or as a target. You know when you're pitching to him that he's going to battle with you."

The Padres began their spring slate Thursday with a Cactus League tilt against the rival Dodgers. With a number of catchers ahead of him in the big league pecking order, Salas is unlikely to play the opener.

Still, he's going to play at some point very soon. When he does, I think it's fair to make a big deal about it. He's a 17-year-old catcher facing big league competition and catching big league arms. For that position, that's really, really impressive.

But here's the thing: The Padres aren't making a big deal out of it. They asked Salas to report to big league camp with players twice his age, because they felt he was ready for it. It's the same reason they moved him as high as Double-A San Antonio last year in his first full professional season.

"The big thing is just continue to learn and grow and get more experiences," said Padres general manager A.J. Preller. "It's good for him being around better players, big league players. He's shown well so far early in camp. He'll get some opportunity to play in these games, and when the time comes, he'll get ready for his Minor League season."

It's only been 13 months since the Padres signed Salas as the top international prospect in last year's class. Last summer, he became the first 16-year-old to play pro ball in a full-season league since Julio Urías.

But the Padres weren't content to stop there. Salas held his own at Single-A Lake Elsinore, so they promoted him to High-A Fort Wayne -- and eventually San Antonio so he could take part in the Missions' playoff run.

And while Salas struggled at the plate at those two higher levels, he was, after all, a 17-year-old facing players well above his age and experience level.

"I always love a challenge," Salas said. "I feel like I was never overmatched at any level I played at last year. It's just going into [this year] more prepared and knowing more about myself than I did last year."

If Salas loves a challenge, he's in the right organization. There might be no team in baseball that's so willing to push its top prospects. That's led some people to wonder whether it's possible Salas could earn a late-season callup as soon as this year.

That still feels like a stretch. But clearly the Padres think highly enough of Salas' abilities that they aren't afraid to challenge him. He's met those challenges thus far, catching live BPs on the same schedule as the rest of the team's catchers and holding his own against the pitchers in big league camp.

Again, easy to forget he's 17... until he's asked about sharing a clubhouse with some of the Padres' superstars.

"It's cool," Salas said earlier this spring. "I watched these guys play on TV when I was younger. I've played with them in videogames. It's pretty cool just getting to know them as people and as teammates. It's going to be really, really fun."