Hedges finishes Winter League stint with 3 HRs in 72 ABs

2 free agent pitchers have 0.00 ERA

Hedges finishes Winter League stint with 3 HRs in 72 ABs

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

Austin Hedges took another step toward becoming a full-time Major League catcher the past two months when he hit .236 with three homers in 21 games for Escogido of the Dominican Republic Winter League.

Hedges, 23, completed his tour with the Leones two weeks ago and was replaced on the Escogido roster by another Padres catcher, Rocky Gale.  

The 27-year-old Gale is off to an 11-for-28 (.393) in eight games with the Leones.

That Gale would succeed Hedges with the Leones is not a coincidence. Moises Alou, who is a special assistant in the Padres' player development department, is also the general manager of the Leones.

Hedges decided to play winter ball and get more at-bats after hitting .168 in 137 at-bats for the Padres in 56 games as Derek Norris' backup last season. Hedges made his Major League debut last May 4 after hitting .324 in 21 games with Triple-A El Paso.

Hedges determined he needed more playing time after getting only 208 at-bats during the regular 2015 season.

The Padres are happy with the way Hedges played in his first season of winter ball in a foreign country. Hedges' defensive tools, including his handling of pitchers and game management, are already considered to be at the Major League level. But his offensive skills were just developing at El Paso when the Padres needed him to back up Norris. Hedges was the Padres' second round pick in the 2011 Draft.

Two other hitters continue to impress the Padres in winter ball.

Jose Pirela, who turned 26 on Nov. 21, is hitting .357 with a .434 on-base percentage with Zulia in his native Venezuela. Pirela was acquired by the Padres from the Yankees last Nov. 11 in a trade for pitcher Ronald Herrera. The infielder has a .255 average in 98 at-bats over the past two seasons with the Yankees.

Pirela is 45-for-126 for Zulia with nine doubles, two triples, two homers, 15 RBIs and 24 runs scored in 33 games. Pirela ranks fifth in batting average and on-base percentage in Venezuela and is seventh in runs scored. He is a candidate to make the Padres 2016 roster.

Luis Urias, 18, is hitting .280 (30-for-107) with a .369 on-base percentage in 36 games for Obregon of the Mexican Pacific League.

Recently signed Minor League free-agent pitchers Luis Diaz and Ramon Benjamin are also pitching well in winter leagues. Both are on the roster of Triple-A El Paso.

Right-handed starter Diaz, 23, is 1-1 with a 1.55 ERA over 46 1/3 innings in nine starts in Venezuela. He pitched in the Double-A Eastern League last season and was 2-10 with a 5.47 ERA in 27 starts.

Left-handed reliever Benjamin, 28, has a 0.00 ERA in five relief appearances in the Dominican Republic. He has allowed three hits in six innings. Benjamin was 7-4 with six saves and a 2.88 ERA in 51 relief appearances between high Class A Advanced and Double-A last season. He allowed 54 hits with 52 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings.

Two right-handed relievers who finished last season in the Padres' bullpen are also off to fast starts in winter ball.

Marcos Mateo is 1-0 with five saves and a 0.00 ERA in 10 appearances in the Dominican Republic. He has 10 strikeouts with one walk in 10 innings. Jay Jackson is 1-0 with three saves and a 0.00 ERA in nine appearances in Mexico. He has 16 strikeouts in nine innings.