When the Guardians Signed Austin Hedges They Refused to Let One Prospect Fail

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While it may not seem like much at face value, the Guardians took steps towards improving their future on Sunday when they signed catcher Austin Hedges to a one-year, $4 million contract. The team would also trade previously claimed catcher Christian Bethancourt to the Miami Marlins for cash in order to open a space on the 40-man roster for Hedges.

Hedges, who previously played part of 2020 as well as all of the 2021 and 2022 seasons in Cleveland before leaving in free agency last year, is one of the best receivers behind the plate in all of baseball. In 2023, he and Atlanta’s Sean Murphy were the only catchers to rank in the top seven in both catcher blocking and catcher framing per Statcast. He would start the year with the Pittsburgh Pirates before being traded during the season to the Texas Rangers where he would end up being part of their World Series-winning squad as their backup catcher.

Hedges was not retained in 2023 as the Guardians decided to go a different direction behind the plate. The reason being, with Hedges as their main backstop in those previous years, the team severely lacked offensive production at the position. For all of his talents behind the dish, Hedges hit just .169 with a .274 slugging percentage in 662 plate appearances in his time in Cleveland. All Guardians catchers in the 2021 and 2022 seasons combined had the worst offensive production in the sport with a wRC+ of a meager 56 (100 is average, higher is better).

That was all the reason the team needed to try another direction in 2023, and that direction was the signing of free agent catcher Mike Zunino coming off a year mostly missed due to thoracic outlet syndrome. Unfortunately, Zunino and his 1-year, $6 million contract would flop hard in his return to the ball field. He himself a one-time hitter of 30 home runs in a season, would post a wRC+ of just 64 and hit 3 home runs in 42 games as a Guardian before being released. He also tallied one of the highest totals for combined wild pitches and passed balls allowed among catchers during his time with the team. So, Zunino ultimately possessed neither the missing offensive pop that Cleveland was looking for nor even a passable defensive skill set.

Even if Zunino had been successful though, it was unlikely that he would have been a long-term solution for the Guardians at catcher. While the team would likely have preferred that prospect Bo Naylor get more time for refinement behind the plate in the minors in 2023, Zunino’s failure lent itself to the opportunity for Naylor to finally show what he was capable of in the Bigs.

Naylor would be eased into full-time catching duties when he first came up and took a little bit of time to find his footing after being promoted near the end of June. He would hit a very Hedgian .181 in just 10 games between June and July with only one home run, but by the end of the season, the younger Naylor brother was beginning to get comfortable and flex his muscles in the show. He hit .304 in 19 games from Sept 1st to the end of the season while nine extra-base hits powered him to a slugging percentage of .607.

That last month could really be something to build off of and gives both the organization and Guardians’ fans hope. The front office has long held the belief that Naylor could be special and that is a big part of why they took care to try to not rush his development in 2023. He stands to be the starting catcher in the coming season with an opportunity to be a major cornerstone of the Guardians’ future.

This means Hedges will be placed into the role that he is perfectly suited for as backup catcher. Hedges is the perfect compliment as a backup since he manages a pitching staff incredibly well and doesn’t make mistakes behind the plate. The Guardians will also not be dependent on him suddenly and exponentially growing as a hitter in his age 31 season since he won’t be playing every day.

Perhaps just as importantly though, Hedges was an excellent clubhouse presence in 2022, perhaps even a presence that the team sorely missed last season.  I wrote in this space in 2022, what might have been my favorite quote from that year, and it came from Hedges:

“We don’t rise to the occasion. The occasion is every day.”

A simple creed that the 2022 Guardians embodied, playing out every game harder than every team and not making mistakes. He also reminds me of Richard Jefferson or Channing Frye in this clip- guys who used humor as a way to galvanize a locker room during the Cavs’ Finals run in 2016 and 2017. I can only imagine that his experiences this past season winning a World Series with Texas can only have made him an even better teammate. His presence should do wonders for a young ball-club that with a first-time manager.

And speaking of that first-time manager, with Stephen Vogt at the helm, Hedges and first base/catching coach Sandy Alomar all in tow, the Guardians have stacked an arsenal of catching savants to mentor young Naylor. There might not be a better trio in baseball right now both in terms of knowledge and character to teach him the final points of the position. Truthfully, the Guardians are showing through their actions what they think of the potential Canadian slugger.

They’re showing that Bo Naylor is the prospect that they will refuse to let fail.

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