The Lava Lamp 2018: Catchers
For a relationship to flourish properly both parties involved need to do the work to grow together. If one side gets stagnant the other will rightly begin to grow resentment. There are no secret codes to avoid this. If we don’t move forward, we die. If we remain stuck, nobody around us will want to be tethered to our death. San Diego Padres fans are looking a few years down the line because the talent traps have been set and it appears to be working. This year the team wants to take a step forward on their way to the playoffs, while continuing to develop a winning culture for years to come. “The Tank” as we thought we understood it is over. We know what they’re doing and we need to display a manageable level of acceptance that we don’t have control of any of this. It won’t be easy, but we have a way in.
Catcher Austin Hedges has been in our universe for the entire recent transformation of the franchise. He came up during 2015 for a cup of coffee and saw how a “Sizzle Team” can fall apart. Then in 2016 he mostly stayed in the El Paso incubator while the Padres awkwardly moved out of the win-now mode of the previous season, saw the departure of Mike Dee, and lost their Rock Star GM to suspension all in the same year they hosted the All Star Game. It was better for Austin stay in the background for most of that. But throughout this tumultuous period, Hedges has always maintained a fun and non-cynical projection of spirit. It’s hard for us to wait for things we want, but his smile always says, “It’s gonna be fine, guys. I got this.” This being the case, if collectively the Padres fan base is Alice, Austin’s body isn’t just our wonderland. He also serves as our white rabbit, taking our attention away from being bored out of our minds and saying stupid shit to clouds to chasing something positive about our future.
In 2017 Hedges displayed flashes of power and was pretty much what we all expected behind the plate. This year, he needs to take a reasonable step forward as a disciplined professional hitter. So far this spring he’s killed the ball with a new swing. Sure, we’ve all seen this before: players come into camp with a new approach and it works for a while, but when the season starts they fall back to what they truly are. For now it’s fun to think about Austin becoming a power hitter, but we won’t know for sure until he does it consistently in games that matter next month.
What will be hard for us to measure is the effect he will have on the pitching staff that hasn’t arrived yet. There won’t really be an emotional appreciation for Hedges if he helps Clayton Richards a tick on his ERA. Unfortunately, Richards is the sad ham and cheese sandwich in our work’s vending machine that we eat while staring at a blank wall in the lunch room. It’s not Austin’s job to make that a better experience. He needs to impact on one of Preller’s Guys because Hedges is the catcher of the first wave of talent that was promised. By the time Anderson Espinoza, Adrian Morejon, and Mackenzie Gore arrive, we need to assume they are in good hands.
It would be better for the team to pull back from playfully marketing Austin’s sexuality (he doesn’t need help); to selling him the way they actually do with Richards (or even Balsley): the leader of the staff who will give stability to the rocky maturation process that young pitchers have to endure. The Padres asked us to wait longer for the experience of rooting for a good baseball team, and while that might not be fair, learning that patience will help us to appreciate the success later. Sure, Austin is sexy, but that’s not enough. He needs to grow and we have to grow with him as well. Let’s bring a new swing to camp too. We can’t control any of this.
He’s not as attractive as Austin Hedges. If he starts in games against Clayton Kershaw and the Padres win, it will be fun to give him credit. However, we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Ellis likely won’t face Kershaw in the postseason when traditionally the greatest pitcher of this generation loses his mental toughness.
He’s more attractive than Ellis, but not as attractive as Hedges. He’s got Rocky Gale’s spot and he needs to act like it.
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