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The Next First Round Catchers

This is the final part of a series about first-round catchers. I’m not the first to tackle the 2010 draft’s best catchers, as Jeff Sackmann at Hardball Times and the crew at Baseball America beat me to the punch this week.

So far this week, we have looked back at the history of every first-round catcher taken in the draft since 1988. As Erik warned us earlier in the week, expectations for any position are dubious at best, and catchers are no exception. Given their positional value — +12.5 in WAR’s adjustment — it is understandable why 2-4 scouting directors every draft roll the dice on a backstop. This June will be no exception, as we know the top of the draft will be occupied by a catcher, and I think it’s easy to forecast two more players going before the start of the second round. We’ll look at those three players today.

1. Bryce Harper, College of Southern Nevada

It was fairly standard for a catcher to be the first name called at the June Amateur Draft upon its conception, as four catchers in the first 11 years were the top pick. But the group struggled at the big leave level, as Steve Chilcott, Mike Ivie, and Danny Goodwin (drafted twice) combined for just 5.8 WAR. So, it took 26 years before a team gambled with a catcher while drafting first, passing over the Best Ever Pre-Strasburg College Pitcher to do so: Joe Mauer.

The Nationals will look to make it a second straight success story in a few weeks, as no bonus demand will stop them from drafting Harper. Four months ago, the assumption inside and outside baseball was that the hype for Harper was growing out of control. But considering the records he is breaking at a tough level, it’s clear the Sports Illustrated cover was justified. He is the most sure-fire bat in the draft since Mark Teixeira or Josh Hamilton, depending who you speak to.

While Mauer has displayed the athleticism to stick behind the plate even when his size suggests he shouldn’t, I’m not sure Harper does. I think he outgrows the position, and becomes something like the 2009 version of Jayson Werth. Right field would be a good option, I think, where his fantastic arm could have the same effect it might behind the plate. The priority has to be getting the bat to the Major League level, and keeping Harper healthy, and I think right field is the best option. But still, expect him to be announced as a catcher on June 7.

2. Yasmani Grandal, University of Miami

Three years ago, I wrote about Grandal as one of “My Guys on Draft Day“, as he had been my second favorite prospect (behind Padres prospect Drew Cumberland) at the 2006 East Coast Showcase. Here’s what I wrote of the high school version of Grandal:

Grandal is the best defensive catcher for his age in the draft, and as a switch-hitter, he has value despite only average offensive skills. His bat speed lags behind most top round prospects, but Grandal’s position and defensive prowess will be worth his bonus amount.

Ultimately, baseball’s brass disagreed with my assessment, as Grandal’s bonus demands were too high. The clubs opted to see how he would perform against Division I pitching, a call that he has certainly answered this season. My guess is that Grandal will end up a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, as he’s hitting a ridiculous .425/.547/.768 through 51 games, the majority of which have been spent behind the plate.

And still, Grandal is considered a bit of a tweener. Opinions on his defense have regressed a little bit since high school, though he now garners more praise for his receiving skills than his abilities throwing runners out. He’s always had good patience and solid pop, and this season, is finally putting to rest the opinions that he might have a slow bat. Ultimately, he’s not the prospect that Matt Wieters or Buster Posey were coming out of school, but I’ll take him before Jason Castro, Tony Sanchez or Jeff Clement, the other three college catchers taken in the top ten recently.

3. Micah Gibbs, Louisiana State University

Playing everyday this year, Gibbs has halved his strikeouts, upped his power, and for the first time, avoided a prolonged slump. And yet, I think his draft buzz was higher entering the season than it is today. A macro view at the star’s career indicates that he maybe shouldn’t be a first-round pick after all: I’m not sure there is one particular skill in his arsenal that is first round caliber.

He’s making better contact this season, but that has been a weakness in the past. His patience last year was fantastic, but this season, it’s fairly average. His power is good for a catcher, but seven home runs is still a career-high. And his defense, which drew a lot of praise this season, is drawing more skeptical opinions this year. Especially given the general struggles of the LSU pitching staff.

The rumors are that Gibbs will be a supplemental first round pick still, but I’m no longer so sure I agree. I would give the Tigers catcher a third-round grade, and surely the highest Bust Potential of this three-man group.

Next week: A different position: past, present and future.