Padres’ Ethan Salas Is Ahead of His Time

Image credit: Ethan Salas (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

PEORIA, Ariz. — Thousands upon thousands of words are written every year about prospects. Numbers are crunched, scouts are surveyed, articles are published and podcasts are recorded, all in search of the game’s next breakout star. 

Sometimes, though, a team will give you all the clues you need without saying a word. 

The way the Padres have handled catcher Ethan Salas in the early days of his career makes it very clear that they hold him in extremely high regard. Before ever playing an official game, he’s already made his debut in big league spring training and been entrusted to catch bullpens and B-games for all-stars Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove

During minor league spring training, Salas not only played in San Diego’s annual prospect showcase—he hit second, one spot ahead of top prospect Jackson Merrill. The Padres that day faced Mariners lefthander Ian Clarkin, a first-rounder a decade ago who is 12 years Salas’ senior. 

How’d he respond? By lashing an opposite-field double to the left-center field gap.

In the coming days Salas would triple against Seattle righthander George Kirby. A day later, he ripped a hanging changeup from Mariners prospect Bryan Woo into the right-field corner for a very loud double. 

All of this would be impressive for a prospect of any age. When you consider that Salas is just 16 years old, it becomes downright incredible. 

“He’s been everything that we expected and maybe even more so,” Padres assistant farm director Mike Daly said. “Sometimes, new players come and expectations are sky high, and Ethan has been great so far. To be able to come into his first first camp just to get acclimated, he has been really impressive.”

Salas’ older brother, Jose, signed with the Marlins in 2019 and was traded to the Twins this past offseason in the deal that sent Luis Arraez to Miami. His father, grandfather and uncle all played professionally as well, though none reached the big leagues. 

Under normal circumstances, players from the most recent year’s international signing class begin their careers in the Dominican Summer League. That’s not going to be the case for Salas, who was born in Florida but moved to Venezuela and is fluent in both English and Spanish. Instead, the Padres are keeping Salas stateside, where he will play in extended spring training and the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League. 

If everything goes well, he could make his full-season debut at Low-A Lake Elsinore late in the season as a 17-year-old. 

In minor league spring training, Salas showed off the tools that made him so coveted. Behind the plate, he received pitches like a big league vet. Although the runner got under the tag, he completed a throw to second base in 1.95 seconds. 

At the plate, he took extraordinarily mature at-bats. In his first plate appearance against Woo, he got into a two-strike hole before working a walk. A few innings later came the double, which was pulled on a line to right field. 

Offensively and defensively, Salas has already caught scouts’ eyes. 

“Tools and skills wise, behind the plate it looks like he was almost born to catch,” one scout said. “He’s super natural in the squat, really mobile, moves well, receives well … At the plate, it’s a really polished approach. Selectively aggressive, shows feel for the strike zone, solid swing. 

“And then on top of all that, he’s just a really projectable kid too, so the sky really is the limit. I’m usually really skeptical with those kids—especially with all the hype he was getting early—but it seems like he could really live up to it.”

Beyond what you see between the lines, the Padres have already raved about Salas’ leadership abilities and how quickly he’s ingratiated himself among his new teammates. 

Whether that means establishing a daily routine, showing up early, taking care of his body or doing the background work on pitchers he’s going to catch or hit against, he’s already shown that he understands all the little things that need to happen behind the scenes in order to be successful once the lights get bright. 

“It could be pretty intimidating for a 16-year-old to come into a clubhouse and try to make friends, especially being a high-profile prospect,” Padres catching coordinator Brian Whatley said. “(It’s a question of) how somebody like that gets integrated into a clubhouse, and I think there’s certain steps that he’s taken and gone about it the right way.”

For any prospect, that’s a positive. For someone who hopes to one day command a pitching staff with its sights set on October, it’s imperative. 

Before that time comes, there’s a lot more experience to be gained. 

Salas’ only official game as a pro came on Nov. 4, 2022 in the Venezuelan Winter League. He got four plate appearances that day and drew two walks, both against pitchers at least four years older. Until the ACL begins play, that game will remain the only official experience on his ledger. 

Between now and the day he reaches the big leagues, Salas will face plenty of speed bumps. He’ll face savvier pitchers, with better command of better pitches. He’ll have to learn how to work his way out of the eventual slumps, and how to keep them from affecting his work behind the plate. He’ll play in searing heat and blistering cold, and—as a top prospect—will face intense scrutiny as he moves up the ladder. 

Judging by the way they’ve treated him, the Padres believe he’s up to the challenge. 

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