Austin Hedges went into the 2011 Draft touted as one of the best defensive high school catchers in recent memory and has since emerged as the best defensive catching prospect in baseball.
Popped in the third round in that 2011 Draft, the Padres No. 2 prospect has proven he's more than a glove-first threat. While turning 21 this summer, Hedges batted .270 with a .768 OPS in 66 California League games before advancing to the Double-A Texas League. Hedges scuffled in his first Double-A trial, but said near the end of the season that the experience helped him identify areas to work on.
He's taken those tasks to the Arizona Fall League and shown strides there, already belting more extra-base hits for Peoria than he did in 20 games for San Antonio.
Hedges is likely to return to Double-A next season, and with a strong campaign, could reach San Diego by late 2014. When he does return for Spring Training, he and the Padres will be without one valuable asset -- former special assistant Brad Ausmus, who last week took over as manager of the Detroit Tigers.
MiLB.com asked Hedges about his experience with Ausmus and much more in its latest Q&A.
MiLB.com: Brad Ausmus has been one of your coaches for a few years now. What was your reaction when you found out he was taking over the Tigers job?
Hedges: I'm really excited for him. I definitely think he deserves that job. I think a lot of us have been waiting for him to get that manager's job over the past couple years. I'm definitely sad to see him go. He has so much insight about catching and the game in general.
MiLB.com: So it's safe to say you think he'll make a good manager?
Hedges: I think he'll be outstanding. Just talking with him throughout the last few years, I've definitely learned a lot. So many of the guys have so much respect for him and how much he knows about the game. He's going to a team with a lot of talent, obviously, but with how much he understands the game and having had such a good catching career -- he has so much experience controlling the game and managing a game -- I think he's definitely going to be an outstanding manager.
MiLB.com: He also seemed to have a good rapport with you young guys. He even starred in that video Cody Decker made. Is it fair to say that's a strength of his?
Hedges: One-hundred percent. I think everybody loves him and he got along with everybody. He had a good rapport, especially with all the catchers. Everyone here looked up to him. Like I said, it'll be tough having him gone because he was so well liked, but I have no doubt that he'll have no trouble getting his feet wet as a manager in Detroit.
MiLB.com: A lot of managers have different approaches to the game, with some being more old school and some appearing to be more embracing to advanced stats. Where do you think Ausmus will fall on that spectrum?
Hedges: That's a hard question. I couldn't tell you that. He had a lot of success behind the plate in his career. I'm sure he'll probably just take that into how he manages games in the dugout.
MiLB.com: You likely have a lot of baseball ahead of you, but is coaching something you've thought about doing after you're career ends? A lot of catchers end up being coaches when they're done playing.
Hedges: I mean, I guess. I'm just trying to make the big leagues first.
MiLB.com: Let's talk about your defense. You were touted as a very good defensive catcher even before you were drafted. What was it about your youth and high school experience that put you ahead of the curve?
Hedges: I've caught my whole life and had a lot of good catching coaches. I think what helped set me apart in high school was my manager, Brett Kay. … He knows a lot about the game and I've definitely learned a lot from him. He made my all my mechanics pretty sound whether it was catching, throwing, receiving and even learning how to call pitches. I learned a lot from him. He definitely helped me out to get where I am today.
(Note: Kay was an All-American in high school and earned All Big West Conference honors while catching for Cal State Fullerton. The Mets drafted him in the eighth round of the 2001 Draft and Kay spent parts of three seasons in New York's farm system.)
MiLB.com: There are a number of promising pitching prospects in the Padres Minor League system. You got to work with guys like Matt Wisler this past summer, but how much do you get to see the guys at the lower levels like Max Fried, Zach Eflin, Adys Portillo?
Hedges: I definitely try to take the relationships with pitchers and treat that as one of the most important things in my game. I try to make a good rapport with them on and off the field. I think we have a lot of really good arms. Wisler is one of the best young pitchers I've caught. His stuff, I think it could play in the big leagues right now.
MiLB.com: You and [2011 first round pick (25th overall)] Joe Ross were actually supposed to go to UCLA together, right? Did you guys know each other well before getting drafted together?
Hedges: We did a couple showcases together our senior year, and I caught him a few times. I got to know him a little bit. Both of us did a few recruiting things together and actually had our signing day at UCLA together. We knew each other pretty well before, and I definitely have a good relationship with him still.
MiLB.com: You told me a few offseasons ago that you were living and working out with Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole. How did that happen, again? You guys still close?
Hedges: I was catching Gerrit's pens during Christmas Break when he was back from UCLA, and we got to know each other a little bit. We have the same agent [Scott Boras] and started working out together before our first full seasons. Then we were living together, and we definitely have a good relationship.
MiLB.com: You're just wrapping up your time in the Arizona Fall League. What have you taken from that experience?
Hedges: This has been extremely helpful. I'm playing against a lot of the best players in the Minor Leagues. I think everyone has proven in past years that so many of the guys from this league play in the big leagues. It's fun to compare yourself to the best talent and compete against them. There's plenty of stuff I'm still working on offensively and defensively. It's good to get a lot more reps, some more [at-bats]. I've definitely taken a lot out of this league.
MiLB.com: Being a catcher in the AFL has to be a unique challenge, what with expanded pitching staffs that you're not necessarily familiar with and the volatility of other team's lineups. What's that been like?
Hedges: It's definitely a challenge. It's hard to so quickly get used to what guys like to throw and also figure out how to get hitters out you've never faced before. You kind of have to get used to it. I try to talk to our pitchers every day, and as long as we're on the same page, I think we'll be pretty successful.
MiLB.com: How does the pitching in the AFL compare to what you saw in Double-A?
Hedges: I think it's pretty similar. Most of these guys are at that level or higher, and all the guys have outstanding stuff and can put it where they want. It's a lot easier catching when the ball is going to go where you want, for the most part. It's the same thing with hitting. The stuff is good. There are plenty of adjustments you have to make here, learning how to hit off-speed better. All the guys here can put their off-speed stuff where they want to.
MiLB.com: Lastly, I wanted to ask about your plans for the offseason once the AFL wraps up. Anything special planned?
Hedges: I'll probably take a few weeks off, then start lifting every day, get in the cage, catch a few 'pens and try to be ready by February for Spring Training.