Jordan Lyles took a moment to consider the question. Delivered with the premise – if an organization could choose a top-level prospect or a top-level prospect in any other position, which should it choose? Lyles leaned back in his chair at the Orioles club, pretending to be the general manager for a moment.
The decision hinged on the belief that both players are virtually identical except for their position. Lyles noted that scouting reports on high schoolers or college stars don’t always accurately predict what a player might be five years from now.
Having said that, the veteran right-hander came to his conclusion.
“If it’s close to talent, I think you prefer a franchise catcher to a franchise because there are only 30 starting catchers and now half of the teams are in a platoon,” Lyles said. “Buster Posey don’t come [often]and I think in the long run they are more valuable to organizations because you don’t have to keep recruiting catchers early on.”
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias seemed to agree with Lyles’ reasoning in 2019, when his first major decision in Baltimore was pick catcher Adly Ratchman over high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.who now plays for the Kansas City Royals.
A player with Rutchman’s skill set – the ability to switch punches with power – could have been the top pick in the draft, no matter what position he played. But the prospect of finding the franchise’s cornerstone behind the plate was an added bonus.
While the stars take on different forms, the catcher plays a vital role in managing the pitching staff, in addition to providing attacking output at the plate. So far, Rutchman has proven he can do both for the Orioles.
The Nationals, who ended the two-game streak at Camden Yards on Wednesday night, went through much the same process, albeit in a different way. As Washington looked to start a surprise recovery last season just two years after winning the World Series, they sent right-hander Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers and partly received catcher Cabert Ruiz in return.
It was a different method, using trading rather than drafting, but the consequences are the same. It’s especially beneficial for a team going through a rebuild to start with the building block behind the plate. They are in a unique position, with a wide range of responsibilities. Finding the answer to the question of the position of the catcher for many years solves one of the biggest questions when rebuilding.
“You’re kind of the link between the pitching staff and the offense,” baseman Trey Mancini said. – Like, you’re very involved on both sides. So to have someone who really makes an impact on the dish and can swing the bat really well, yeah, I think that’s hard to come by, especially in today’s game.”
There are very few players like Posey, the 2012 National League MVP, seven-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion, as Lyles said. Prior to Rutchman, Minnesota Twins legend Joe Mauer was the last catcher to be selected with the best overall pick in 2001. In the 17 drafts between Mauer and Rutchman, seven pitchers and six shortstops were taken first overall. There have now been two catchers in three years: the Pittsburgh Pirates have taken Louisville star Henry Davis #1 in 2021.
Teams want to line up across the middle of the field – “It’s been that way for 100 years,” manager Brandon Hyde said, “whether it’s a middle infielder or a center fielder. But finding a catcher who can excel as both an attacker and a defender may be the best path given the infrequent occurrence of such catchers.
At the start of Rutchman’s first month in the Majors, defensive improvements were faster. He’s been studying his pitching staff, and his batting average has increased lately, including another double on Wednesday.
“It’s such a difficult position to be a rookie in the big leagues and then succeed,” Hyde said. “He will continue to get better and better.”
As he considered the situation, Lyles compared finding a catcher to finding a quarterback in football. The comfort of the front office, when there is continuity in the center, is felt by the whole team and in the draft.
With Rutchman — and, in a sense, Ruiz, another high-profile player now playing for Washington — the annual search for a platoon catcher evaporates. There is an annual institutional knowledge of the serving staff, and there is a strong bat in the lineup.
“It’s really important to have a guy who can really swing and be elite on defense,” Mancini said. “You can’t underestimate how great this is.”