Austin Hedges Scouting Report: The Best Catching Prospect No One Knows About
Widely regarded as the top defensive catcher in the 2011 draft class, many teams were scared off by Hedges' strong commitment to UCLA and demand for a well-above-slot signing bonus.
Those concerns caused him to fall to the second round where he was selected by the San Diego Padres with the 82nd-overall pick. Although Hedges held out until the Aug. 15 signing deadline, he ultimately agreed to a $3 million bonus. But with the minor-league season nearly complete, Hedges played in only nine games in his pro debut, including four games for Short-Season Eugene.
Due to his all-around defensive package and present game-calling ability, the organization handed the then-19-year-old an aggressive assignment to Low-A Fort Wayne to open the 2012 season. At the same time, the Padres’ decision was questionable, as skeptics doubted whether his bat would develop. But with the potential to become one of the top defensive catchers across all levels, his prowess behind the plate would always seemingly outweigh a lack of production.
And then Hedges began to hit. Like, a lot.
Playing in 96 games for Fort Wayne this past season, the right-handed hitter batted .279/.334/.451 with 38 extra-base hits, 14 stolen bases and 62/23 K/BB. In his first full professional season, Hedges led all Midwest-League catchers in doubles (28), RBI (56) and stolen bases (14).
At 6’1”, 190 pounds, Hedges, who was named Prospect Pipeline's No. 50 overall prospect following the regular season, is a surprisingly good athlete who showcases agility in all directions behind the plate. The 20-year-old is already a plus receiver and blocker, and he commands a similar respect from his pitchers and managers for his knack for calling a game.
With a quick transfer and release as well as a legitimate plus arm, Hedges hosed 47-of-149 basestealers (32 percent), which will inevitably improve as pitchers learn to control the running game, and he consistently registered pop times under 1.85-seconds. Furthermore, in addition to his stellar defense, Hedges’ aggressiveness behind the plate (88 assists, 9.05 range factor-per-game) already distinguishes him from every other lower-level catching prospect.
The right-handed hitter’s bat was the big surprise this past season, as he showcased a short, simple swing that resulted in hard contact to all fields. He also exhibited a more advanced approach than was expected, as well as the ability to work counts in his favor and spit on close offerings.
Although he posted a double-digit home run total, it’s difficult to see Hedges hitting for more than average power. But if he begins to leverage his swing without sacrificing contact, then it’s possible that the right-handed hitter could launch 20 home runs in his best season.
Relative to most backstops, Hedges moves well on the field, though his speed only grades as slightly below-average. But given his high baseball IQ and constant state of awareness, he’s already adept to reading pitchers and picking his spots to steal.
After an impressive full-season debut in the Midwest League, Hedges will presumably open the 2013 season at High-A with a chance to reach Double-A by September. Regardless of his development at the plate, the 20-year-old will likely enjoy a quick ascent up the organizational ladder due to his defense.
And with young, highly-talented pitching prospects either close to being big-league-ready or a few years away, the Padres will want Hedges working with their future staff as often as possible—just as he would do as an everyday catcher in the major leagues.
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