As the non-tender deadline approached in late November, the Padres and Marlins lined up on a minor trade. San Diego acquired catcher Jorge Alfaro for cash considerations or a player to be named later, not long after Miami had traded for Jacob Stallings to replace Alfaro as their primary backstop.
To some extent, it was a predictable acquisition. San Diego president of baseball operations A.J. Preller has shown a continued affinity for bringing in players whom the Rangers acquired during his time as a key figure in the Texas scouting department. Alfaro, whom the Rangers signed as an amateur in 2010 and who later blossomed into a top prospect, qualifies. Yet the Marlins had clearly grown dissatisfied with his up-and-down performance at the big league level, and they seemed likely to non-tender him in lieu of paying a projected $2.7MM arbitration salary if they were unable to find a taker in trade.
Yet it also marked something of a curious move for the Friars, who already had three catchers on the 40-man roster. Alfaro is out of minor league option years, meaning he’ll need to break camp with the club or be cut loose. At first glance, however, he’d seem to be fourth on the catching depth chart. Austin Nola’s first full season in San Diego was derailed by injury, but he’s an above-average backstop on both sides of the ball when healthy. Víctor Caratini didn’t have a great showing last year, but he has a strong relationship with Yu Darvish and was behind the plate for 29 of Darvish’s 30 starts last season. Top prospect Luis Campusano doesn’t have much more to prove in the minors after hitting .295/.365/.541 across 326 plate appearances as a 22-year-old in Triple-A.
With Alfaro needing to be on the big league club or cut loose, where does he fit? Perhaps just off the roster bubble. San Diego didn’t give up much to acquire Alfaro, after all. Arbitration salaries aren’t fully guaranteed until Opening Day, with players cut loose during the first half of Spring Training only entitled to thirty days’ termination pay (around one-sixth of their full season salary). In Alfaro’s case, that’s likely to be a touch under $500K. Maybe Preller and his staff saw an opportunity to get a player they like in the building, and they’re willing to move on from him before the season starts if there’s simply no room on the roster.
That said, San Diego valued Alfaro enough to acquire him before the non-tender deadline, swooping in to grab his rights before Miami cut him loose and allowed him free rein to negotiate with all 30 teams. They did so knowing he’s out of options, so they’ve certainly contemplated scenarios where he breaks camp. It seems unlikely they’d carry each of Nola, Alfaro, Caratini and Campusano on the active roster, however.
Nola and Alfaro do each have some experience at first base and in the corner outfield; Nola can play a bit of second or third base as well. That’d perhaps give manager Bob Melvin some flexibility, but both players should spend the bulk of their time at catcher. Nola’s a solid defender behind the dish, and bouncing him to less valuable positions around the diamond to accommodate Caratini or Alfaro is probably less valuable than simply deploying Nola as the primary catcher. Alfaro could see some action rotating through the corners, but he’s spent far more time behind the plate than anywhere else (2,809 2/3 MLB innings at catcher, 144 2/3 innings in the outfield, 27 1/3 frames at first base) and probably isn’t a good enough hitter to live up to the offensive burden of regularly manning a corner.
Maybe the Padres keep Nola, Caratini and Alfaro around and option Campusano back to Triple-A to start the season. So long as he continues to perform well in El Paso, there’ll be pressure to get him major league reps. Campusano, whom Baseball America recently ranked the sport’s #53 overall prospect, arguably already warrants an everyday look. One could argue the Padres aren’t in position to provide that, and San Diego should at least consider the possibility of making him available on the trade market.
San Diego isn’t going to trade a prospect of that caliber expressly because they acquired Alfaro for a song, of course. Alfaro could be let go; the same is perhaps true of Caratini (who still has a minor league option remaining), although the organization no doubt values his rapport with Darvish. Yet having a pair of veteran depth options on hand behind Nola might give Preller and his staff more comfort in contemplating a Campusano trade, which might prove a way to bring back needed outfield help.
It wouldn’t be the first time Campusano’s name were to come up in trade talks. The Padres and Nationals discussed him last summer as part of San Diego’s (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to land Trea Turner and Max Scherzer at the deadline. Campusano was also at least mentioned in talks about the Cubs assuming some or all of Eric Hosmer’s contract.
Shedding the money due to Hosmer would certainly still be of interest to the Padres, although it seems unlikely they’d part with Campusano solely as a way to cut payroll. We’ve seen instances of teams “buying” a prospect by taking on an undesirable contract (the Giants’ Will Wilson/Zack Cozart deal, the Red Sox/Brewers Jackie Bradley Jr. and prospects for Hunter Renfroe swap are examples), but the young players involved in those moves weren’t as highly-regarded as Campusano currently is. If there’s an opportunity to move Campusano and Hosmer in a trade that also brings back MLB help — they and the Rangers reportedly kicked around frameworks of a deal that could’ve sent Hosmer and prospect Robert Hassell III to Texas for Joey Gallo last summer — San Diego could be more amenable.
However the situation resolves itself, it seems unlikely the Padres will carry all of Nola, Campusano, Caratini and Alfaro on the 40-man roster for too long after the lockout. Perhaps they’re simply stockpiling players of interest and will cut bait with one of the veteran depth options if they’re faced with a roster squeeze. But it also seems the Friars have enough short-term depth to withstand a possible Campusano trade, and we’ve repeatedly seen Preller’s willingness to act boldly if the right opportunity presents itself.