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.