Because of the inherent riskiness of selecting high school and college kids often years away from playing on the big stage, baseball's annual amateur draft differs from the talent-selection process of other pro sports. In baseball, an organization's current need is rarely a focus. It's often about best player available — and, at times, the most willing to sign.
Occasionally, though, need and availability converge in baseball's three-day, 40-round draft, which begins Thursday with two, made-for-TV rounds.
That rare situation could occur this year for the Orioles — who pick 22nd in the first round, their lowest position since 1998 — if they are willing to step out onto amateur baseball's slipperiest slope and select a high school catcher. Veteran personnel men throughout the sport may shudder at the thought.
"It's a real challenge to draft and develop a catcher," said Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette. "We would take a look at adding a catcher [in the first round] if we thought that was the best player on the board. We could certainly use the depth throughout the organization."
Catching is probably the riskiest position to draft early, simply because it is so difficult to evaluate and the corresponding price tag is always high. In other words, an expensive bust is more the norm than the exception.
For the rare Joe Mauer, Minnesota's former MVP selected out of high school with the top overall pick in 2001, there are legions of highly drafted catchers who fail to live up to expectations or are forced to switch positions to make the big leagues. In a sense the latter is OK; but in many cases if they weren't going to be catchers, they probably wouldn't have been selected as high or paid as well.
"It's the hardest position to learn out of all of the positions," Duquette said. "The mental part of the game is very demanding, and so is the physical part. The mental and physical demands make it very difficult to maintain your other skills. So it is a challenge."
Depth at a shallow position
This year's overall amateur draft class is not considered particularly strong. Yet, for the first time in years, there are plenty of high school catchers on teams' radars.
"I think it is a draft that overall is considered sub-par, mediocre," said Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis. "But I think the two strengths in the draft would be high school catching and left-handed pitching, whether it is college or high school."
Because the Orioles don't select in the Top 5 for the first time in seven years, they must cast a wider net for their top pick.
"Whatever we do, we are going to make disciplined picks. We are not going to reach up and pick a catcher because we need one," said scouting director Gary Rajsich, who is running his second draft for the Orioles. "We want to get the right one or two of them in the right spots."
Manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles have one of the best starting catchers in the business in 27-year-old backstop Matt Wieters, whom the club selected in the first round (fifth overall) in 2007 out of Georgia Tech. He can be a free agent after the 2015 season, and even if he signs a long-term deal before then, the Orioles could use an insurance plan.
"A high school catcher is not normally moving quickly to the big leagues. … They're at least three or four years from the big leagues," Callis said. "Heaven forbid, but Matt Wieters is going to be a free agent by that point and maybe he is gone. And catchers get hurt. So by the time [a high schooler] is ready for the big leagues, there's no telling what Wieters' situation is."
Wieters' regular backup, 29-year-old Taylor Teagarden, is oft-injured. And when he was forced to the disabled list this year, the Orioles traded for veteran Chris Snyder instead of dipping into its minor league system.
"There's no question we have [catching] depth. Now, to what degree the quality is, remains to be seen," said player development director Brian Graham. "Every single organization in baseball is in the exact same boat as us as far as catching. It's difficult to find and it's difficult to develop. There are just not many front-line catchers out there."
And that's what makes this upcoming draft intriguing.
Baseball America lists three high school catchers — Reese McGuire, Nick Ciuffo and Jonathan Denney — as first-round talents. It also lists three more high school catchers, and one from college, as potential second-rounders.
McGuire, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Washington who is considered a natural receiver, is expected to go in the top 10 and likely won't fall to the Orioles. But Ciuffo, a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder from South Carolina who may be the best all-around catcher in the draft, was projected by Baseball America to end up with the Orioles. Denney, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder from Oklahoma who has raw, right-handed power, also could be on the board when the Orioles select.
If the Orioles pass on one of those, they could still select a backstop with one of their three other Top 100 picks (37, 61, 98) in what Rajsich calls "an unusually strong catching class." Maryland is part of that national trend. The state's 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year is Calvert Hall catcher Alex Murphy, a Wake Forest recruit who has garnered some pre-draft interest.
Most don't catch on
Last year, Rajsich didn't select a catcher until the 13th round, when he picked but didn't sign Wade Wass. The Orioles took Stetson catcher Sam Kimmel in the 18th round, and he is being converted into an outfielder.
Baseball America doesn't list a catcher in the organization's top 30 prospects. The most promising are at Double-A Bowie: Brian Ward, 27, and Caleb Joseph, 26. But there are questions as to whether Ward's bat and Joseph's glove will play in the big leagues. Michael Ohlman, 22, who signed out of a Florida high school for a far-above-slot $995,000 bonus in 2009, hasn't been able to stay healthy.
History has not been kind to the Orioles when selecting true high school catchers with their top first-round picks. They've done it four times since the draft began in 1965. James West (1970) and Ken Thomas (1972) never made the majors. Jayson Werth (1997) has had a fine career as an outfielder, but he never played for the Orioles. Brandon Snyder (2005) has played in 44 big league games and only one inning at catcher, while with the Texas Rangers last year.
Wieters, a two-time Gold Glover and All-Star, is the organization's only top pick to actually catch for the Orioles — and he wasn't drafted by anyone out of high school, only partially because it was known he was going to college.
"Mentally I might have been ready out of high school, though I probably wasn't," Wieters said. "But I don't think I was ready physically. I think I needed that weightlifting program. And having to learn how to bide your time was big for me."
Wieters said it takes a special mentality — "a coach's type personality" — to become an effective catcher in the majors. All the extra preparation may chase some from the position. Additionally, organizations often want their top picks to get to the majors quickly to take advantage of their advanced skills. Potential top catchers are moved to other spots, such as former No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals.
"He probably could have stayed at catcher, but he was ready to hit and play at the big league level at a younger age," Wieters said of Harper, now an outfielder. "It always comes down to what kind of developmental program you have."
Many top athletes never even put on the catcher's gear, which obviously limits the talent pool, Graham said.
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"The best athletes on the field want to play shortstop or center field," Graham said. "If [Orioles center fielder] Adam Jones played tennis from the time he was 7 years old, he'd probably be a great tennis player. And if Adam Jones played catcher from the time he was 6 years old, he'd probably be a big league catcher. But he was a high school shortstop that moved to center field."
All things being equal, Orioles bench coach and catching instructor John Russell said he'd prefer to have a high school catcher, because often they can be more easily molded. College catchers, for instance, normally aren't allowed to call their own games, so they are three or four years behind high school catchers in developing that skill.
"If you get a really good, young, talented catcher coming out of high school, there are a lot of things he hasn't been subjected to yet that you can kind of get him onto the professional path a little bit quicker," said Russell, a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982 as a college catcher. "A lot of times in college, unfortunately, they are a little more programmed."
Most in the organization agree that there needs to be an infusion of higher quality catchers. And since there's more talent at the position in this draft than in years past, the question becomes whether it's worth the risk to gamble on a catcher in the first round or two this week.
"Yeah it is, depending on who it is. There are exceptions to everything," Showalter said. "So many times in draft rooms everybody is wanting to take the easy way out. I know our guys don't. But that's the history of it. … But what about Joe Mauer? Wieters? We all know you can't win without [good catchers]. And you better have more than one."