Jordan Lyles needed a second to ponder the question. Posed with a premise — if an organization could choose a top-level catching prospect or a top-level prospect at any other position, which should it select? — Lyles leaned back in his chair in the Orioles clubhouse, playing pretend general manager for a moment.
The decision depended on a belief that both players were virtually identical, other than their position. Lyles pointed out that scouting reports on high schoolers or college stars don’t always accurately predict how a player might turn out in five years.
With that said, the veteran right-hander came to his conclusion.
“If it’s close talent-wise, you go with the franchise catcher over the franchise anything, I think, because there are only 30 starting catchers, and now half the teams are platooning,” Lyles said. “Buster Poseys don’t come around [often], and those are more valuable long-term for organizations, I think, because you don’t have to continue to draft catchers early on.”
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias appeared to agree with Lyles’ reasoning in 2019, when his first major decision in Baltimore was to choose catcher Adley Rutschman over high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., who now plays for the Kansas City Royals.
A player with Rutschman’s skill set — the ability to switch hit with power — might’ve been selected with the top overall draft pick regardless of what position he played. But the prospect of finding a franchise cornerstone behind the plate was an added benefit.
While stars take many forms, a catcher plays a vital role handling the pitching staff on top of providing offensive production at the plate. So far, Rutschman has proven to be adept at both for the Orioles.
The Nationals, who finished a two-game series at Camden Yards on Wednesday night, went about much the same process, albeit in a different way. As Washington sought to begin an unexpected rebuild last season just two years after winning the World Series, it sent right-hander Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers and received, in part, catcher Keibert Ruiz in return.
It was a different method, utilizing a trade rather than the draft, but the implications are the same. For a team undergoing a rebuild, starting with a building block behind the plate is especially advantageous. They’re in a unique position, with wide-ranging responsibilities. Finding an answer for the catcher position for years to come solves one of the largest questions in a rebuild.
“You’re kind of almost the liaison between the pitching staff and the offense,” first baseman Trey Mancini said. “Like, you’re very involved on both sides. So to have somebody who’s really impactful behind the dish and can swing the bat really well, yeah, I think that is hard to come by, especially in today’s game.”
As Lyles said, players of Posey’s ilk — a 2012 National League Most Valuable Player, seven-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion — are few and far between. Before Rutschman, Minnesota Twins legend Joe Mauer was the last catcher drafted with the top overall pick in 2001. In the 17 drafts between Mauer and Rutschman, seven pitchers and six shortstops were taken first overall. Now there have been two catchers in three years, with the Pittsburgh Pirates taking Louisville star Henry Davis No. 1 in 2021.
Teams want to build through the middle of the field — “That’s been like that for 100 years,” manager Brandon Hyde said — be that a middle infielder or center fielder. But finding a catcher who can excel as both a hitter and a defender could be the optimal route, given the irregularity of such catchers coming along.
Early in Rutschman’s first month in the majors, the defensive improvements have been more rapid. He’s learning his pitching staff, and his batting average has ticked up recently, including another double Wednesday.
“It’s just such a tough position to be a rookie at in the big leagues, and then hit on top of it,” Hyde said. “He’s gonna continue to get better and better.”
As Lyles considered the situation, he compared finding a franchise catcher with finding a franchise quarterback in football. The comfort a front office has when there’s continuity under center is felt across the team and in the draft.
With Rutschman — and in a sense, Ruiz, another highly ranked prospect now playing for Washington — the yearly search for a platoon catcher evaporates. There’s a year-to-year institutional knowledge of the pitching staff, and there’s a strong bat in the lineup.
“To have a guy who can really swing it and be elite on defense is huge,” Mancini said. “Can’t be understated how big that is.”