Top prep catchers figure to go early in Draft
With backstops difficult to project, McGuire, Denney, Ciuffo should be in high demand
The idea of bringing an exciting, young high school catcher into the organization is an intriguing one. After all, who doesn't want to draft the next Joe Mauer?
The problem, of course, is that the Joe Mauers of the world are few and far between. Since Mauer was drafted No. 1 overall by the Twins in 2001, a grand total of 12 high school catchers have been taken in the first round. While there have been some who were taken a bit later -- Brian McCann was a second-rounder in 2002 and Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a sandwich pick the following year, both of them taken by the Braves -- not only have few been selected, the success rate has not exactly been through the roof.
Some have changed positions, others didn't or haven't made it to the Majors. Only three of those 12 have seen any time in the big leagues as a catcher.
Yet this year, it's a relative strength among those eligible for next month's First-Year Player Draft. If a team wants a catcher in the first round, it more than likely will be looking at a high school backstop. With it, though, comes risk, given that young catchers have often neither had the chance to catch nor hit against high-level pitching.
Despite that, there are three high school catchers who have a very good chance of being first-round picks. Reese McGuire, from the Pacific Northwest, has emerged as the top choice and his name has been bandied about as a potential top-10 pick. Behind him are Jon Denney from Oklahoma and Nick Ciuffo, who hails from South Carolina.
"The other two guys are more offensive, but McGuire has already shown good defensive skills," one scouting director said. "He has good flexibility and he has good throwing skills. He's a hot commodity, too, as a left-handed-hitting catcher."
Ciuffo and Denney are both more offensive-minded catchers at this point, with work to be done on their defensive skills. Ciuffo is big and strong and also hits left-handed. He has a strong arm but is a bit less refined with the glove. Denney had a huge summer last year and hasn't lived up to that this spring, perhaps a victim of the extra attention given the Draft these days.
"The whole process, there's so many guys who are so into this," the scouting director said. "They're being talked about so much, so early. Sometimes, a lot of them aren't as good as we thought. Sometimes you get to see a player play too much. We talk about what he doesn't do well too much, rather than what he does well.
"The teams that like Denney think he's going to hit and drive the ball and over the next four years is going to get better catching. This guy is better than Mike Zunino was in high school, or Mike Napoli was at that point."
Teams might buy in because of the bat, but they might want to be as sure as possible that the glove is going to eventually come. Don't be surprised to hear reports on some of the prep catchers -- those three or other Top 100 prep catchers, such as Chris Okey from Florida -- being brought in by teams to get last-minute looks as the Draft rapidly approaches.
"In many cases, the teams that are bearing down on those particular guys bring them in for private workouts," the scouting director said. "When you do that, you want to bring them in and catch some arms that you know are Major League arms. You may watch [them in the regular season] and see them catch kids throwing 82 mph. Maybe you saw them over the summer catch [some high-quality pitchers], but it was for three innings. It's tough to evaluate."
It hasn't been much easier to evaluate the collegians, either. College catching is typically in high demand, but it's in short supply this year. Cal's Andrew Knapp is the only college backstop in the top five, and the only one in the Top 100 overall Draft prospects. Knapp can swing the bat, and from both sides of the plate, but he hasn't caught a lot and is kind of in the same "rough defensive skills" boat as the high schoolers.
Georgia Tech's Zane Evans and Mississippi's Stuart Turner have been coming on of late. Turner is big, strong and durable, and scouts were keeping a very close eye on him at the Southeastern Conference tournament. Evans also is physical, though he's been difficult to scout because, as his team's closer, he sometimes is saving his arm for the ninth inning, when he can hit the mid-90s with ease.
"There are very few complete guys back there who can hit, drive the ball and catch and throw well," the scouting director said. "Once you get past the three high school guys, the next four, in no particular order, are Knapp, Turner, Okey and Evans. If those three go in the first round, the run will start with this next four. And once that run starts, they're going to go quickly."
The First-Year Player Draft will take place on June 6-8, beginning with the Draft preview show on MLB.com and MLB Network on Thursday, June 6, at 6 p.m. ET. Live Draft coverage from MLB Network's Studio 42 begins at 7 p.m., with the top 73 picks being streamed on MLB.com and broadcast on MLB Network. Rounds 3-10 will be streamed live on MLB.com on June 7, beginning with a preview show at 12:30 p.m., and Rounds 11-40 will be streamed live on MLB.com on June 8, starting at 1 p.m.
MLB.com's coverage includes Draft Central, the Top 100 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. You can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.