After a brief hiatus, it’s time to return to our preview series looking at the 2020 MLB draft. With over 20 entries in the series, we’ve pretty well covered the big names who are currently garnering first round attention, and while we’ll continue to monitor breakout performances with the college season underway, it’s time to start looking into what the Mariners might do with their second-round selection, pick number 43.
While the Mariners have exclusively favored high-floor college players with their first picks for the past four years (Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby), they’ve shown some willingness to expand the collegian-only dictum with their second-round choice, taking prepsters Joe Rizzo and Sam Carlson with their first picks in 2016 and 2017. With a 2020 draft that projects to be very heavy on college talent, especially college pitchers, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team repeat that strategy with this draft.
High school pitchers are notoriously risky draft choices, but high school catchers might be the riskiest. To date, the most WAR produced by a catcher drafted out of high school in the past decade belongs to Tucker Barnhart, owner of a career 5.7 bWAR; the next closest is the Blue Jays’ Danny Jansen, at 1.7 career bWAR. Prep catchers face a long and arduous climb up the ranks; even Barnhart, a relatively speedy mover for a HS catcher, spent the better part of five years in the minors. The Padres have been one team that’s consistently been willing to roll the dice on prep catchers, and while Wil Myers and Hunter Renfroe are no longer catching, and Josh Naylor is likely on his way to a similar fate, Austin Hedges has made his way to MLB, and prospect Luis Campusano has worked his way into Top-50 consideration after a torrid season at Lake Elsinore. Could the Mariners roll the dice in a similar manner in the 2020 draft? If they do, there are two top prep catchers to consider: one bat-first, and one glove-first. We’ll start by looking at the glove-first prospect, Drew Romo out of The Woodlands, TX.
Romo is not only the best defensive catcher in the class but has an argument to be the best defensive catcher in the draft, or at least 1A to NC State’s Patrick Bailey. He’s an excellent receiver, with soft hands and the ability to handle both velocity and movement. At 6’1”/205 he’s sturdy but agile behind the plate, able to spring out of his catcher’s crouch quickly—he posted a class-best 1.76 pop time at Perfect Game’s National Showcase in 2019—and possessing excellent lateral movement. His arm is strong and accurate, and he reads plays well ahead of time. Romo also has leadership qualities beyond his years. This summer he was the primary backstop for the 18U Team USA, a team which fell disappointingly short of lofty expectations. Romo managed his pitching staff through some tough moments on the mound and also was, according to reports, a clubhouse leader. The thing that has impressed me most about Romo is his instincts behind the plate and ability to react quickly. He has helped make a lot of raw prep arms look much more polished with his ability to head off poor plays at the pass.
Drew Romo (@LSUbaseball commit), one of the top prep catchers in the 2020 #MLBDraft class, shows off his— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) July 22, 2019
1.61 pop time
Put in perspective: Of 26 #MLB catchers with 3+ measured 3rd-base pop times this year, only 4 average < 1.61.
Watch live: https://t.co/DIgHLklDrk pic.twitter.com/6atWdbBejx
No secondary lead is safe against Drew Romo. Plus-arm, incredible pop times, and this was an accurate throw to first. After review, runner might be safe, but called out on the field. Top prep catcher in this class. #MLBDraft2020 pic.twitter.com/2tfm5fBIwx— Josh Nelson (@soxmachine_josh) August 30, 2019
While Romo’s defensive skillset is beyond reproach, the question has been the bat, although he performed well at major showcase events this summer and against some quality world pitching with Team USA. Romo is a switch-hitting catcher, as is en vogue lately, although he is praised for an ability to hit from both sides with almost identical swing mechanics thanks to working mostly from the left side from age eight on. Scouts see him hitting for average more than power with a contact-oriented approach that sprays balls around the field and in the gaps rather than over the fence. He also garners praise for his plate discipline, walking as much or more than he strikes out.
Drew Romo's swing from both sides of the plate. Chance to be a special defender behind the plate. WIll be first rounder with continued success at the plate this spring. #MLBDraft pic.twitter.com/u2VMoMHi9y— Kyler Peterson (@KPeterson813) February 8, 2020
Romo, who played shortstop before converting to catcher at age 13, looks a little lighter to me than the 6’0”/200 he’s listed at, and could add muscle/strength on a pro training regimen. However, even without plus power, a contact-oriented plus-plus defensive catcher who gets on base is an appealing floor.
There are four catchers currently in conversation as potential back-end of the first round picks: Romo, fellow Team USA U-18 teammate Tyler Soderstrom, NC State’s Patrick Bailey, and Arizona’s Austin Wells. Baseball America is the high outlet on Romo, listing him at 22 overall, with Soderstrom right ahead of him and Bailey a few spots before that. MLB Pipeline has Romo well behind Soderstrom (18) and Bailey (22), at 27. FanGraphs, in a fit of either pique or a love of the “C” key, has Bailey, Romo, and Soderstrom 30, 31, and 32. (Wells lags a little behind the trio of Romo, Soderstrom, and Bailey at most outlets.) With all four backstops bunched up around the back of the first round, it’s likely one or more would be available when the Mariners go to pick at 43, and with the track record of prep catchers, perhaps Romo or Soderstrom would be available as a project to a team willing to be patient with this particular tricky demographic. With Romo’s solid base of tools, he might even move faster than history suggests.