With the draft quickly approaching and in light of the incident with Buster Posey at the plate a week ago, I think it makes sense to look at the catcher position and the future of it within the draft. Granted I probably would not even have considered this if the two best catchers in baseball weren’t currently on the disabled list, but that hardly makes anything about the inherent risks of the position less true. No reader of this site requires an explanation of these risks and the dangers of the catcher position, but I am skeptical many would disagree that it’s about time the offensive catcher disappears from baseball, and it starts with the draft.
Don’t get me wrong, anything better than a .750 OPS from a catcher should certainly be welcomed, and I’m certainly not suggesting that catchers shouldn’t strive for success on both sides of the ball. What I am saying, however, is that devoting top draft picks to catchers should no longer be a consideration for competitive organizations. Teams like the Astros essentially draft by randomly pulling names out of jars, so this probably doesn’t apply to them. In hindsight, the Twins and Giants would quite obviously have begun the careers of Joe Mauer and Posey at a position where the thought of 600 at-bats would be the standard as opposed to impossibility. Posey is certainly capable of playing third, and if years of catching hadn’t bulked his lower half up, short might have also been a possibility since it was his primary position during his first two years at Florida State. Mauer probably has the feet and athleticism for third and certainly has the arm. Any position on the field would carry a more encouraging long term prognosis than catcher, though, in terms of keeping these stars in the lineup.
Catchers capable of a .700 to .750 OPS can be found all over the amateur ranks and can be signed cheaply. They can also be converted either at or after signing. An example is Colorado’s Jordan Pacheco, a former All-American infielder during his time at UNM and at La Cueva High in Albuquerque, who he helped lead to two national titles. Pacheco was converted immediately to catcher upon signing. Pacheco and Posey are far from similar players. Pacheco is catching because it likely is the only position that is capable of getting him to The Show. This is hardly the case with Posey or Mauer, whose bats are good enough to make it at any position.
The real point of this piece, although it took me a minute to get to it, is that the process of protecting superstar careers from the innate risks of the catcher position begins with the draft. Let’s use the top-rated catcher on every club’s 2011 board, Blake Swihart of Cleveland High in Rio Rancho, NM, as our case study. Swihart will probably fall in the middle of the 1st round barring signability issues, with which all UT signees come equipped. How much of this is based on the potential for him to actually catch? There is reason to believe that it is worth about 10 picks or so based on Swihart’s fall from what some scouts viewed a potential top-10 pick a month or so ago. This small slide came as a result of Swihart spending much of the spring season at short, leaving many scouts unfamiliar with what he is capable of behind the plate. Still, a top-20 bat is worth several million dollars, especially considering how rare they are in this class. Based on playing time, however, the case can be made that he is actually considerably more valuable if he were to play third or right, the positions that many think he belongs in the long term. The amount of time that exceptionally athletic catchers miss in their mid and late 20s is unacceptable given that many players are still under the control of the teams who drafted them at that stage of their careers. Additionally, Swihart will surely debut at a younger age if he were to play any position other than catcher due to the fact that he won’t be required to familiarize himself with the rigors of handling a staff.
I’m not going to write a piece about potential additions to the rules to help prevent collisions at the plate because star players in their early 20s shouldn’t be back there in the first place. When Posey returns, I greatly hope that the Giants make the logical move and begin converting Posey to third or right. Hopefully when Swihart’s name is called it will be as a C/IF and that whoever drafts him intends to develop him as an IF. Bryce Harper’s career layout after spending his amateur years behind the dish must become the standard for elite bats like Mauer’s, Posey’s, and Swihart’s.