From my Padres season preview on Thursday…
Who should be the Padres catcher of the future: Nick Hundley, or Yasmani Grandal?
San Diego gave Hundley a contract extension last week that will take him through the 2014 season, until he’s 30. The deal is a relative bargain, as Hundley will make just $9 million over the life of the contract. He can make $5 million during his age 31 season (2015) if the Padres exercise an option, but there’s no buyout on that option, which is fantastic for San Diego. 2011 was the best season of Hundley’s career, as he hit .288/.347/.477, accruing 3.5 fWAR in just 82 games.
One major knock on Hundley is that he’s never been able to stay healthy or take hold of the Padres catching job for his own. He’s never played in 100 games in a season, and hell, he’s never gotten as many as 310 plate appearances in a season. This is coming over a four season stint in the majors, beginning with his half season debut in 2008. His overall career path almost looks incomplete, due to his lack of playing time and struggles aside from last year. Hundley does have a solid minor league pedigree, OPSing .736 with a .219 ISO in 2008 in AAA, and .799 with a .228 ISO in 2007 in AA.
I think Grandal has a much higher upside than Hundley. He’s much younger, as 2012 will be just his age 23 season. He moved quickly through the Reds system last year, starting the season in high-A and finishing up in AAA for a spell. I’d assume he’ll be starting in AAA for the Padres this season. His ETA is very soon, as a college bat who can (and has) move through the system very fast. Based on his overall success in 2011 (.920 OPS in 56 games in high-A, .834 OPS in 45 games in AA), I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him get a late season (or mid-season, if Hundley gets hurt) callup to San Diego.
Based on Hundley’s age in comparison to Grandal (five years older) and his much lower ceiling, I’d assume that the Padres view Grandal as their catcher of the future. So why give Hundley the contract extension this month? Simple: leverage. The Padres bought out all three of Hundley’s arbitration years, and the option would cover his first year of free agency. When Grandal is ready for the majors, the Padres can either keep Hundley around as an expensive, yet extremely effective, backup catcher, or they could deal him to one of the many teams that are lusting after a starting catcher that can hit. His contract isn’t a franchise crippler like the one Vernon Wells has in Los Angeles, so there’s no reason for the Padres to be cursing themselves for this. Hundley’s contract also gives them insurance in case Grandal gets hurt, or doesn’t progress the way they expected this year. Be it Hundley or Grandal, the Padres are going to be good to go behind the plate for the next three years at a minimum, and that’s a good problem to not need to worry about at all.