Maybe the KC Royals should choose a catcher first

(Photo by John Sleezer/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Sleezer/Getty Images) /
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The KC Royals have the fourth pick in the 2020 amateur draft. They might be wise to select a catcher.

Salvador Perez owns the catching job in Kansas City. There is no one to compete with the best and most beloved backstop in KC Royals history and the club isn’t looking to replace him.

Perez, though, is 30, an age when teams begin looking for ways to give high-caliber catchers regular relief from the taxing grind of daily life behind the plate. In Perez’s case, missing last season after Tommy John surgery makes that quest a bit more urgent. And his contract expires after next season; although he might command more money elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine him leaving the only team and major league town he’s ever known. The Royals aren’t going to lose him without a fight or trade a player so popular with his teammates and fans for prospects.

For these reasons and some others about to be mentioned, it might be time for the Royals to consider drafting a catcher. They’ll pick fourth when the draft begins June 10; with the catching future beyond Perez uncertain, the club might be wise to look at promising catchers who should be available when it makes its first selection but might not be when it makes its second.

Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria are Perez’s backups, but neither will likely succeed him. Although they’re competent defensively, they’re not Perez’s equal, and their lack of power won’t help. Big league teams like catchers who hit home runs…even the Royals, despite their cavernous home park.

That leaves MJ Melendez, the club’s second round, can’t miss-type pick in 2017–quality catching is a bit thin in the organization and Melendez is the best of the minor league choices. After a modest Rookie ball performance after signing in 2017, he lived up to his touted power potential with 19 homers, 73 RBIs and an .814 OPS at Class A Lexington in ’18.

Last season was a different story. Melendez moved up to High A and played only one less game but hit 10 fewer homers, drove in 19 fewer runs, and hit .163, 88 points lower than the season before. Although his superior defensive skills didn’t suffer–he threw out 60% of would-be base stealers (he’s averaging an excellent 43% in three campaigns)–Melendez’s bat suddenly became a concern.

It’s too soon, of course, to write Melendez off. But .188 won’t cut it; if he doesn’t hit, his Royals future will cloud.

So, all things considered, KC shouldn’t dismiss the thought of using their first pick on a catcher. Although most prognosticators are thinking infielder, outfielder or pitcher, it might be time to do something else.

Baseball America’s latest mock draft (subscription required) identifies four catchers as potential first-round selections: North Carolina State’s Patrick Bailey (11th to the White Sox), California prep standout Tyler Soderstrom (13th to the Giants), Ohio State’s Dillon Dingler (20th to the Brewers) and Arizona’s Austin Wells (26th to the A’s). Bailey and Wells seem the most likely candidates if the KC Royals consider picking a catcher first.

Like Perez, Bailey has an excellent glove and arm (he threw out 33% of runners who tested that arm last season) and knows how to block. He’s trusted to call pitches, something almost unheard of in college ball, so his baseball IQ and savvy must be good. Although his .288 average last season wasn’t great by college standards, his 10 homers in 60 games prove his power. Bailey earned first team All-ACC and third team All-American honors in 2019 and was named to the USA Baseball Collegiate Team. He was ACC Freshman of the Year in 2018.

And the fact he’s a capable switch-hitter won’t hurt his major league prospects.

Wells hit .375 with two home runs and 14 RBIs for Arizona before NCAA play came to a pandemic-related halt. A draft-eligible sophomore, he was the 2019 PAC-12 Freshman of the Year last season with five homers, 60 RBIs and a .353 average in 56 games. And he stole seven bases in seven attempts–a catcher who runs well is a luxury, as retired KC catcher John Wathan proved long ago.

Soderstrom has some power and, at 6-2 and 190 pounds, is built like Bailey (6-2, 192) and Wells (6-1, 200). He hits from the left side, which might give him a bit of an advantage over Wells, but not the switch-hitting Bailey. But the Royals like college players a lot; if they want a catcher, Soderstrom’s inexperience could (and probably should) count against him.

Dingler was 17-for-50 when this campaign ended and hit .291 last season, but only .244 the year before. He appears to have some power.

Should the KC Royals spend their highest pick on a catcher? Because they’ll improve soon, they’ll gradually draft from lower positions–the time might be now to use a first round selection on something other than an infielder, outfielder or pitcher.

Why? Nick Gonzalez is often projected as the team’s first pick, but he’s a shortstop and the Royals already have Adalberto Mondesi and Bobby Witt Jr.

Related Story. Bobby Witt Jr. could present a pleasant problem. light

And the club’s’ bumper crop of superb young pitchers should begin arriving in KC next season; a handful of top outfielders are also close to being ready for the big leagues. Drafting at those positions isn’t as critical as it has been.

We wrote in this space a few months ago that the Royals need to be cautious with Perez and speculated he’ll get more time off, DH occasionally, and experiment a bit at first base. Whether baseball returns this year or next won’t change that, but it’s time for the KC Royals to prepare for the day Perez moves out from behind the plate, or moves on entirely. Grabbing a promising young catcher with their first draft pick could be a good start.

It’s certainly something to at least consider.

Next. Looking back at Greg Pryor, utility man. dark

Baseball’s 2020 draft starts in less than two weeks. When it does, we’ll find out if the KC Royals want to pick up a good catcher immediately.

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