February 4, 2013 - Midwest League (MWL) - Dayton Dragons
Every summer, an army of professional baseball scouts descend upon Fifth Third Field and other Midwest League ballparks. An hour before game time on most nights, particularly in the days following the June draft after their amateur scouting is complete, the pressbox at the home of the Dragons is a gathering point for scouts and their interesting banter. Their conversations are always filled with varying opinions on specific players, past and present. Listening closely, among the dialogue, it becomes apparent that one of the most difficult positions on the field to project is the catcher position. The role of the catcher requires a unique blend of smarts, leadership, receiving and throwing skills, and a serviceable bat. Because the make-up of a catcher is different than any other position on the field, it is somewhat rare that a player found to be lacking of the defensive skills to make it as a catcher can be converted to another position. For all of these reasons, teams are often reluctant to invest a high draft pick on a catcher.
Over the first 42 years of the draft, the Reds took only two catchers in the first round. The first was Danny Lamar in 1979, a high school prospect from Texas who eventually reached the Double-A level. The second was Dan Wilson of the University of Minnesota in 1990, and Wilson had a long big league career, mostly with Seattle.
Not only did the Reds resist drafting catchers in the first round from 1965-2006, they also took very few in the second or third rounds. Future hall-of-famer Johnny Bench was a second round pick in the first year of the draft in 1965, and in 1983, the Reds drafted Joe Oliver in the second round. Oliver went on to become the Reds starting catcher on their 1990 World Series championship team and played in over 1,000 big league games. Two other second round catchers, Dave Van Gorder (1978) and Dane Sardinha (2000) had brief big league careers. The Reds took a catcher in the third round in 1973 who was out of baseball in a little over a year. Not until 2004 did they select another catcher in the third round.
On draft day, 2004, for just the second time in their history, the Reds drafted a catcher in the third round. He was Craig Tatum, who spent two seasons with the Dragons and went on to become the 35th Dragons player in the Major Leagues.
Tatum was the 2001 Mississippi high school player of the year who went on to play college baseball at Mississippi State University. This storied program has produced numerous big league all-stars including Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen, Sammy Ellis, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jeff Brantley (now a Reds broadcaster). After signing with the Reds, Tatum spent the summer of 2004 in Billings and then joined the Dragons in 2005.
The Dragons opening night lineup in 2005 included Tatum and two other future Major Leaguers, shortstop Paul Janish and starting pitcher Ramon Ramirez. Two other players off the '05 club, pitcher Homer Bailey and shortstop Adam Rosales, are also big leaguers. Tatum's 2005 season did not go as planned. He suffered an elbow injury, struggled to hit, and before the end of May, his season was over. He underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and came back to the Dragons in 2006.
Tatum, like Janish who had also returned from the same surgery, came back to the Dragons to appear in the opening night lineup for the second straight year in '06, joined in the batting order by future Reds teammates Jay Bruce in center field and Travis Wood on the mound. Tatum's second year with the Dragons went much better. He got off to a slow start as he returned from the injury but raised his average to .295 by May 15. His best game with the Dragons came July 15 when he belted two home runs in a 3-2 win over Clinton at Fifth Third Field. He collected four hits in a game in Dayton on August 18, then picked up three more in his next game. Additionally, and importantly for his position, he quickly emerged as one of the top defensive catchers in the Reds organization. His final numbers in Dayton included a .277 average with eight home runs in 98 games.
Tatum opened the 2007 season at Sarasota and hit .320 in 58 games to earn a midseason promotion to Double-A Chattanooga. Before the end of the 2008 season, he jumped to Triple-A with Louisville. Baseball America now ranked Tatum as the 28th best prospect among all Reds minor leaguers and their third best catching prospect, behind current big leaguers Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco.
Tatum returned to Louisville in 2009, but when Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez went on the disabled list with a knee injury on July 20, Tatum was called up. He made his first big league appearance the next day as a pinch hitter against the Dodgers. Tatum started six straight games for the Reds July 25-30 and remained with the club through the remainder of the season. He appeared in 26 games with the Reds, batting .162 with one home run.
After the 2009 season, the Reds removed Tatum from their 40-man roster and he was claimed off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles. He made the Orioles opening roster in 2010 and spent nearly all season in the Majors, batting .281 in 43 games as the team's back-up to starting catcher Matt Wieters. He returned to the Orioles in 2011, batting .195 in 31 games. Tatum spent the 2012 season in the Yankees organization at the Triple-A level but missed most of the season with an ankle injury. He signed with the Miami Marlins organization for the 2013 season.
As a footnote, the selection of Tatum in the third round of the draft in 2004 marked the first of several instances of high draft picks being utilized on catchers by the Reds. They selected catchers in the first round in both 2007 (Mesoraco) and 2010 (Yasmani Grandal) and took Mark Fleury in the fourth round in 2009. Evidence of the difficulty in projecting catchers lies with the fact that the Reds starting catcher in 2012, former Dragon Ryan Hanigan, was an undrafted free agent. The contrast is also seen when looking at the two starting catchers in the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. They were Mike Napoli, a 17th round pick and 500th overall selection, and Buster Posey, a first round pick.
As a final footnote, if Johnny Bench was a second round draft pick in 1965 and went on to become arguably the greatest all-around catcher in baseball history, who was the first round pick that year and what became of him? The answer is Bernie Carbo, who went on to a 12-year Major League career and finished second in the 1970 Rookie of the Year voting. Carbo's signature moment, of course, came against the Reds, when he belted a ninth inning, game-tying home run in game six of the 1975 World Series as a member of the Red Sox. The game was selected by MLB Network as the greatest game ever played.