Santiago tops list as No. 1 Padres catcher

Kennedy a close second to Padres Hall of Famer

Santiago tops list as No. 1 Padres catcher

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

Because Benito Santiago was inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame last summer, it would seem he'd automatically top my list of the top five catchers in Padres history.

Well, he does.

But it is a lot closer than some might assume.

Terry Kennedy had better offensive numbers in his six seasons with the Padres than Santiago had in seven. And Kennedy was one of the keys to the Padres winning their first National League title in 1984.

But in picking my all-time top five catchers in Padres history, I give Santiago the edge over Kennedy, with Gene Tenace third, although he also played some first base. At No. 4, I have Ramon Hernandez, with Brad Ausmus edging Nick Hundley for the fifth spot based on his defensive skills.

My top five Padres catchers:

1. Benito Santiago (1986-1992)
Spectacular is the best word to describe Santiago's play as a Padre. As a catcher, not only did Santiago throw from his knees to nail would-be basestealers, he got a kick out of racing hitters to first base. He also liked getting his glove as close to the ground as possible while setting a target. And he was even better offensively. Santiago still holds two Major League records he set as a Padre: the longest hitting streak by a rookie and the longest hitting streak by a Major League catcher -- 34 straight games from Aug. 25-Oct. 2, 1987.

Signed as a 17-year-old free agent out of Puerto Rico in 1982, Santiago made his Major League debut with the Padres at the end of the 1986 season. The following year he became the only Padre ever voted the NL Rookie of the Year. Capping the season with the 34-game hitting streak that still stands as the longest in Padres history, Santiago hit .300 with 18 homers, 79 RBIs and 21 steals. He also had 33 doubles and two triples for a .467 slugging percentage. His .300 batting average, 164 hits and 79 RBIs remain records for a Padre rookie. His hits and 21 steals remain the Padres' single-season records for a catcher.

In his Padres career, Santiago hit .264 with a .406 slugging percentage. He had 124 doubles, 15 triples, 85 homers and 375 RBIs in 789 games. Santiago made the All-Star team four straight years (1989-92) and won four Silver Slugger Awards (1987-88, 1990-91) and three Gold Glove Awards (1988-90).

2. Terry Kennedy (1981-86)
Kennedy was durable and tough and earned praise from manager Dick Williams -- no easy achievement -- for his handling of the Padres' very young pitching staff during the 1984 run to the NL pennant. Kennedy also had a higher WAR (16.9) as a Padre than Santiago (14.1) while playing 835 games. Kennedy finished with a .274 batting average, a .319 on-base percentage and a .407 slugging percentage as a Padre. He had 158 doubles, seven triples and 76 homers for San Diego with a franchise-record 424 RBIs as a catcher.

In 1983, Kennedy became the first Padre to win an NL Silver Slugger Award. He was voted to the NL All-Star team three times and was voted to the starting lineup in 1985. Kennedy's .303 batting average in 1981, 40 doubles and 70 runs in '82 and 93 RBIs in '83 are all Padres single-season records by a catcher. On the Padres' all-time charts, Kennedy ranks 10th in games played, eighth in RBIs and ninth in hits (817) and doubles (tie, 158). Kennedy was one of seven players acquired by the Padres on Dec. 8, 1980, from St. Louis in exchange for four players, including catcher Tenace and pitchers Rollie Fingers and Bob Shirley.

3. Gene Tenace (1977-80)
Tenace holds one of the few Padres career batting records that Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn doesn't. As a Padre, Tenace reached base 40.3 percent of the time -- the only qualifying player in Padres history with a career on-base percentage topping .400 (Gwynn's career mark was .388). Tenace was already an All-Star and a member of three World Series championship teams when he signed as a free agent with the Padres on Dec. 14, 1976, at the age of 30.

In four seasons with the Padres, Tenace had a .237 batting average with 69 doubles, 13 triples, 68 home runs and 239 RBIs. But he also drew 423 walks (with 384 hits) while striking out only 386 times. His 125 walks in 1977 led the NL, and he topped the century mark in walks each of his first three seasons as a Padre. His 125 walks are tied for the second-highest total in Padres history, while his .415 on-base percentage in 1977 is the fourth-best mark in Padres history. Tenace has three of the top 10 single-season walk counts in Padres history and ranks fifth on the Padres' all-time walks list despite having fewer plate appearances than anyone else in the top 10. Tenace's WAR as a Padre was 19.7.

4. Ramon Hernandez (2004-05)
Although I discount most anyone who played only one season with the Padres (Mike Piazza, 2006), I put Hernandez ahead of some other catchers with more playing time as a Padre based on two solid offensive years during Petco Park's first two seasons. Hernandez hit .283 in two seasons with the Padres, with 42 doubles, 30 homers and 121 RBIs. He had a .332 on-base percentage and a .463 slugging percentage as a Padre while catching the likes of Jake Peavy and David Wells. Hernandez's WAR in just 210 games as a Padre was 5.6. Obtained from Oakland in a trade for outfielder Mark Kotsay on Nov. 26, 2003, Hernandez departed as a free agent after the 2005 season.

5. Brad Ausmus (1993-96)
Ausmus had great defensive and mental skills behind the plate. He made his Major League debut with the Padres in 1993 and hit .255 with 40 doubles, six triples and 18 homers in three-plus seasons for San Diego. He was an excellent handler of pitchers whose best years came after the Padres traded him to Detroit on June 18, 1996.

Hundley was selected by the Padres in the second round of the 2005 Draft and reached the Major Leagues in '08 at the age of 24. He shared the catching position through most of his six-plus seasons as a Padre and was not considered the greatest defensive catcher in franchise history. But he had the ability to put a charge in the ball and had a number of key and game-winning hits during his stay in San Diego. Hundley hit .238 with 85 doubles, 11 triples and 47 homers with 195 RBIs in 1,812 plate appearances as a Padre before being traded to Baltimore on May 24, 2014. Like Ausmus, Hundley was a natural leader.