When the Tampa Bay Rays were at their absolute worst, it was building through the MLB Draft that made all the difference in their turnaround. In recent years, though, their drafting has been much-maligned, and the criticism starts with one critical mistake. Never having an All-Star catcher in their history to that point, the Rays had the first overall pick in the 2008 MLB Draft and had Florida State catcher Buster Posey sitting right in front of them. But instead, the Rays selected Griffin (GA) High School shortstop Tim Beckham and the rest is history. The Rays are still looking for their franchise catcher.
In 2010, the Rays did finally take a catcher in the first round, drafting Justin O’Conner out of Cowan High School in Indiana. But O’Conner has not developed as expected could soon end up converting to the mound. Unfortunately for the Rays, O’Conner is a predicament common among the catchers in their organization. Lucas Bailey has done nothing, Mark Thomas stopped hitting, and Oscar Hernandez is too far from the major leagues to bank on him for anything. So the Rays will continue to toil away with Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton splitting time as their starting catchers, providing good defense, especially in terms of pitch framing, but decrepit offense on par with the worst of any catching corps in baseball. Is it time for the Rays to select another catcher in the first round?
There’s no quality college catcher available, no Posey that will quickly ascend to the major leagues, let alone to stardom. So the Rays will look for another high school catcher to select, an additional player to dream on. There has been talk off the Rays selecting Lexington (SC) High School catcher Nick Ciuffo, a player who’s different from the Rays’ previous high school picks given that he’s not as much of a high-upside player but does a lot of things well both offensively and defensively and ties his game together with excellent leadership intangibles. Or they could select a player like Jon Denney, another player with a big-time arm and big-time power who is extraordinarily talented but who could very well be boom or bust. But is the answer to overcompensate and draft a player you’re not as sold on to fill an organizational hole? Ciuffo is not the Rays’ type of pick because he doesn’t have as high as ceiling and Denney is a case of “been there, done that.” There are certainly reasons that the Rays have only selected one catcher in the first round of the MLB Draft despite their history of ineptitude at the position: high school catchers have a notoriously low rate of success and the Rays always try to select the best player on the board regardless of need.
What’s the difference between selecting a catcher in the first round or selecting him in the fourth round if there’s so much risk involved? Bailey was a 4th round pick in 2009, and the Rays even went to the 11th round to select Taylor Hawkins in 2012, signing him to an above-slot bonus. The Rays seem very likely to select a high school catcher early on in the 2013 MLB Draft, but it may not come until their third pick at 60th overall or even a later round. At the end of the day, the Rays will try to get impact talents across the board, and at some point that pick will have to be a catcher. They’re not going to press to try to make up for the Posey mistake and their priority will not be to fill their catching hole. Even if another year by without the Rays selecting a catching prospect early on, it will not be steadfastly denying a mistake or ignoring reality but the Rays doing the best they can to fill their system with quality players. The Rays need a catcher and it’s as good of a time as any to select one. They hope that this is the year their catcher of the future comes around. But don’t root for them to select an inferior player that they wouldn’t have selected otherwise simply because he plays the catcher position because they won’t do that.