With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Padres squad each day this week. Today's topic: What's the difference?
SAN DIEGO -- Since being selected in the second round of the 2011 Draft, Austin Hedges has often been heralded as the Padres' catcher of the future. On Opening Day in Los Angeles, he'll officially become their catcher of the present.
This year's Padres team features a few striking differences from the one that broke camp a year ago. None of the five starters on that team will pitch for San Diego in 2017. And none of the starting outfielders are back either.
But the most impactful change could come behind the plate, where Hedges' skill set is arguably the most complete among catchers younger than 25. Simply put, the Padres needed to find a way to get Hedges on the field. So, in December, they dealt Derek Norris to Washington for pitching prospect Pedro Avila.
Once the Padres' top prospect, Hedges lost his rookie status in 2015, while serving as Norris' backup. As a result, he won't crack any top prospects lists, but he's without question one of the brightest young catchers in the sport, and pitchers have raved about working with him.
There are questions about Hedges' bat. But while offense clearly isn't his strength, it's a bit unfair to judge Hedges by his .161 average in the big leagues. He played only sporadically over parts of two seasons, receiving just 178 plate appearances.
At Triple-A El Paso last season, Hedges batted .326/.353/.597 with 21 dingers and 82 RBIs, despite missing a month due to hand surgery. Those numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt as well, given the hitter-friendly nature of the Pacific Coast League.
But if Hedges' offensive contributions land somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, the Padres will have a difference-maker at a premier position in 2017 and beyond.
"It's going to be as much about the work he does behind the plate as the work he does at the plate with the bat in his hands," Padres manager Andy Green said earlier this offseason. "We've looked at him for a very long time as a catcher of the future for us. That time looks like it's arisen."
And the timing couldn't be any better. With 2017 marking Hedges' first full professional season, the Padres have their catcher of the future locked down through '22. He's already begun establishing a rapport with a few of the big league starters.
Plus, if Hedges can settle into life in the big leagues over the next couple years, he'll serve as a calming influence when San Diego's top pitching prospects arrive. Many of them -- namely Cal Quantrill and Anderson Espinoza -- aren't likely to contribute until 2019.
The Padres would like for those young pitchers to be greeted by a steady presence behind the dish when they reach the Majors, a role they expect Hedges to fill.
Pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout on Feb. 15 at Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Ariz. The Padres' first full-squad workout is set for Feb. 18.
AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.