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The Difficult Journey Facing MLB’s Next Generational Catcher

Adley Rutschman has all the makings of a franchise-altering draft prospect. But first he has to conquer the arduous journey of becoming a major league catcher—a process that has derailed many promising careers before his.

In the 18 years since the Twins turned high school catcher Joe Mauer into the No. 1 pick of the 2001 MLB draft and a Hall of Fame presence behind the plate, every other team in baseball has tried its hardest to find similar gold in the first round. Fifty different players over that span have been selected from across the country, all with the hopes that they, too, could be a franchise’s backstop of the future.

For the most part, they’ve all failed.

With the exception of Buster Posey in 2008, the highly touted catchers drafted this millennium make for a long list of has-beens and never-weres. There are the would-be superstars like Matt Wieters and Mike Zunino who didn’t live up to the hype. There are guys like Devin Mesoraco, Travis d’Arnaud, and Blake Swihart who went from top prospect to roster filler. And there are the big busts: Jeff Clement, Kyle Skipworth, Tony Sanchez—the names that keep general managers and scouts awake at night.

No catcher has been picked first overall since Mauer in 2001, and he was only the fourth ever and the first in 26 years. (Georgia Tech’s Joey Bart was the closest since, going No. 2 last year to the Giants.) Not that things are much better at any other spot: Just 16 of the 146 first-round catchers ever drafted have been worth 20 or more Wins Above Replacement in their career, and nearly half of them, like Craig Biggio and Dale Murphy, produced most of that value at other positions. The draft is a brutally hard thing to figure, but no position seems tougher to predict than catcher.

Next Monday, though, one team will get the best shot in a decade to solve that problem. In all likelihood, when Commissioner Rob Manfred steps to the podium in the Secaucus, N.J., studios of MLB Network that night to announce the No. 1 pick of the 2019 draft, the name he’ll read aloud is Adley Rutschman, a switch-hitting catcher for Oregon State and the next great hope to join the ranks of Mauer and Posey.

Both the 2019 Pac-12 Player of the Year and a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, Rutschman has spent the last two years torching NCAA competition. As a sophomore in 2018, he hit a preposterous .408/.505/.628 with nine homers and 22 doubles, helping the Beavers win the College World Series as its Most Outstanding Player. He’s been even better in his junior season, slashing .419/.580/.765 with 17 homers and twice as many walks as strikeouts, making him a regular name atop mock drafts and the favorite to go No. 1.

“Rutschman has the chance to be a generational talent,” says a Northwest area scout. “If he doesn’t go [No. 1], I’d be shocked.” Adds an MLB scouting director: “Everything I’ve heard is that he’s on par with Posey in overall long-term profile.”

The praise from those close to him is just as high. “So many people have asked me, if you had one negative thing to say about him, what would it be? I always tell them, nothing,” says Oregon State head coach Pat Bailey. “There are a lot of really good players, but this guy’s going to be a game-changer.”

Whether Rutschman follows in Mauer’s footsteps as the top overall pick is in the hands of the Orioles, who haven’t said publicly what they plan on doing with the team’s first No. 1 selection since 1989. But whether it’s Baltimore or Kansas City at No. 2 or perhaps the White Sox at No. 3, one way or another, Rutschman will be drafted high. And after the congratulatory phone call and the hugs with family and the signing of the first big contract, then he will begin the process that has stalled or destroyed so many other prospects of his stature: becoming a big league catcher.

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