Padres Prospect Ethan Salas Joins Rare Company Of 16-Year-Olds To Play Full-Season Ball

Image credit: Padres catcher Ethan Salas (Photo Courtesy of Gail Verderico)

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — Ethan Salas set a goal of breaking spring training with a full-season affiliate this year.

He didn’t quite accomplish that, but he still reached full-season ball remarkably quickly.

Salas made his professional debut at 16 years old with Low-A Lake Elsinore this week after the Padres promoted him out of extended spring training. The Venezuelan catcher has reached base in seven of his first eight plate appearances with the Storm—three singles, a double and three walks—over his first two games. He turns 17 on Thursday.

“I’m not a super, like, starstruck, guy,” said Salas, the Padres No. 3 prospect. “I’m like, ‘Okay, this is just another game,’ because I’ve been I’ve been working for this. I’ve been hearing about it my whole life.”


Salas signed with the Padres for $5.6 million in January, the largest bonus of any player in the 2023 international signing class. While that pedigree certainly speaks to his talent, he’s exceeded all rational expectations.

Playing even just two games in full-season ball as a 16-year-old has put Salas in rare company.

Dodgers lefthander Julio Urias famously pitched for Low-A Great Lakes as a 16-year-old in 2013, but examples of position players appearing above the Rookie levels that young are exceedingly limited.

Wilmer Flores appeared in one game with Low-A Savannah in his age-16 season in 2008, but he was 17 when he made that appearance. Flores turned 17 on Aug. 6 and appeared for the Sand Gnats on Aug. 27.

Angel Villalona played in a domestic league above the Rookie level in his age-16 season when he appeared in five games for short-season Salem-Keizer in 2007, but all five of those games took place after he turned 17. He turned 17 on Aug. 13 and made his five appearances for the Volcanoes from Sept. 1-5.

It is likely that Adrian Beltre briefly appeared for Low-A Savannah as a 16-year-old in 1996. The South Atlantic League season began on April 4 that season. Beltre made the Opening Day roster and did not turn 17 until April 7. Box scores for Savannah’s opening series against Hagerstown are not available.

The last time a 16-year-old position player got extended time in full-season ball was when Edgar Renteria played 116 games for Low-A Kane County in his age-16 season in 1993 (he turned 17 on Aug. 7). There have been discrepancies regarding Renteria’s age, but his brother told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Renteria’s birth certificate was altered so that he could sign with the Marlins as an underage 15-year-old, putting him at Low-A when he was, in fact, 16.

Renteria, notably, played 45 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League the year before playing full-season ball. Salas, as a catcher, skipped the Rookie levels and went straight to Low-A for his professional debut.

“I was put here to do this, you know what I mean?” Salas said. “So it’s not like, ‘Oh, that was so crazy.’ It was like ‘Okay, great. Now let’s keep rolling.’”

Salas’ skills have been on display immediately since he arrived in Lake Elsinore.

In his first official professional plate appearance, facing 19-year-old Visalia (D-backs) righthander Jacob Steinmetz, Salas battled through an eight-pitch at-bat and drove a double the opposite way into the left-center field gap. He added a single in his second at-bat, struck out looking in his third and battled back from an 0-2 count to work a walk in the final plate appearance of his debut.

After serving as the DH in his debut, Salas made his first appearance at catcher in his second game on Wednesday. He reached base in all four plate appearances with two walks and two singles, displayed soft hands as a receiver while calmly handling all pitch types, showed impressive timing and lateral agility on a difficult block in the dirt and made an impressive play when he jumped quickly out of the crouch to grab a dribbler in front of the plate and fired a perfect throw to first base for the out.

It was the type of composure and performance on both sides of the ball usually seen from a seasoned professional, not a teenager barely old enough to drive.

“I mean, if I didn’t know he was 16, I would think he’s in his early 20’s the way he acts and the way he plays,” Lake Elsinore third baseman Graham Pauley said. “Which is crazy, but it’s very cool.”

It’s been a continuation of the ability Salas showed in spring training, when he caught Padres all-star righthanders Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish like a seasoned veteran and roped a triple off burgeoning Mariners ace George Kirby in a backfields game.

Salas continued to shine in extended spring training, but it wasn’t just his physical ability that convinced the Padres he was ready for full-season ball before turning 17.

“You want to make sure he’s ready to go out from an ability standpoint … but more so is he able to transition being outside of complex baseball?” Padres farm director Ryley Westman said. “Is he going to take care of his lifts? Is he going to be eating right? Is he going to take care of business away from the field? Is he an individual at 16 years old, basically a high school kid, that you’re comfortable sending out?

“So I think the biggest thing he showed us while in Arizona (was) he was the first guy into the gym. He was like the first guy to the complex. A lot of those little intangibles that we feel are going to affect the playing side, he was really taking care of business and showed a lot of maturity just as a person. So that was a big thing for us.”

Defining what will constitute success for Salas this season is difficult, simply because there is little precedent for a position player this young—and a catcher at that—playing full-season ball. Renteria hit .203/.268/.232 for Kane County in 1993, the year he was 16 and turned 17. Blue Jays shortstop Jimy Kelly hit .219/.263/.244 for Low-A Dunedin in 1987 when he opened the year at 16 and turned 17 in July.

The Padres are less focused on specific numbers and more on how Salas handles the rigors of a full season. With the current nature of the international market, Salas spent the last few years primarily working with trainers and has not played in games regularly since he was 13.

“We’re looking for this kid to gain experience,” Westman said. “He’s obviously very young and we’re not looking to push him too quickly. I don’t have anything specific to, like, gauge him. I want to see this kid go out there and develop relationships with those pitchers, have meaningful and quality at-bats on a team that’s doing very well right now and be a big part of that clubhouse. Those are probably some of the biggest things I’m looking for out of Ethan.”

Salas does have one tangible goal he wants to accomplish. While those watching from the outside may focus on his individual stats or how quickly he gets promoted, Salas’ only goal in his debut season is team-oriented.

“Win a championship,” Salas said. “I wanna win championship before I leave. I wanna leave here with a ring.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include details about Adrian Beltre’s tenure at Low-A Savannah in 1996.

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