MLB draft: Dodgers bolster catching ranks with Dalton Rushing

It has been six years since Dodgers catcher Will Smith last played for the University of Louisville.

But in the Cardinals’ baseball program, he was one of a lineage of outstanding catchers that lives on half a decade later.

Smith took the lessons he learned from a couple of senior senior backstops when he arrived and passed them on to his successor, Zeke Pinkham.

Pinkham then became a mentor to Henry Davis, who was selected first in last year’s Major League Baseball amateur draft.

Before leaving, Davis kept the tradition alive and provided more experienced leadership to the program’s next young catcher, Dalton Rushing.

And on Sunday, on the first night of this year’s MLB draft, Louisville and the Dodgers came full circle.

With their first pick of the draft, the Dodgers selected Rushing in the second round 40th overall.

The team had no choice for the first round after crossing the competitive balance sheet tax threshold last year.

Still, the Dodgers have added another highly touted catcher to an organizational talent pool where Smith excels at the major league level and top contender Diego Cartaya dominates in the minor leagues High A.

“The Los Angeles Dodgers are doing a great job with catchers,” Rushing said in a video conference call from Louisville after the selection was made. “Will Smith has obviously shown the ability he has behind the plate. I can’t explain how excited I am to get started.”

Ranked the 50th top prospect in the draft class by, Rushing was praised for his left-handed power swing — he hit 23 home runs this season, was the fourth-most in Louisville history this year and the 16th-most in of the nation – but also faced with questions about his future behind the plate.

During his first two seasons at Louisville, he served as Davis’ backup, splitting his time defensively between catchers and first base. He started a total of 63 games that year, but only 36 as a catcher, again spending time at first base and as a designated hitter.

However, the Dodgers are high on Rushing’s potential as a catcher.

“We really believe that catch is going to be possible and really going to be a path that he can go down,” said Billy Gasparino, the Dodgers’ vice president of amateur scouting. “I think most of the industry had doubts … But some sporadic playing time there has tarnished what we think is a talented catcher.”

Louisville coach Dan McDonnell agreed over the phone Sunday night.

“He’s done enough behind the plate to show his ability,” McDonnell said. “He didn’t catch much in Louisville and he’s gotten better, so [think about] how much better [he’ll get] when you put it there for 100-something games.

Another benefit pointed out by the school’s 16th grade coach: “It’s a fresh body. This is not a kid who has been put down in the last three years.”

Quite the opposite, said McDonnell.

Louisville's Dalton Rushing sprints to third base during a game against Connecticut in February.

Louisville’s Dalton Rushing sprints to third base during a game against Connecticut in February.

(Kelly Sheehan/Associated Press)

When Rushing arrived in Louisville three years ago, he was a well-regarded recruit with multiple offers from Southeastern Conference powerhouses, but also a potential teenager who knew he needed to make a physical change.

McDonnell said in his freshman year Rushing was already strong with rare left-handed power at the plate. But he was also “a fat, baby-fat, chubby kid.” He was nicknamed the jelly beans and the mini-fridge. As a high school football player, he played “somewhere along the line,” McDonnell added. “It was just a fat kid.”

However, in Louisville, Rushing participated in a weight room program. He changed his diet with the help of the team’s nutritionist. He worked to increase his flexibility and all-around athleticism.

And after limited playing time in his first two seasons, he blossomed into one of Louisville’s top hitters this year, earning second-team honors from the All-Atlantic Coast Conference and All-American consideration from multiple outlets after batting .310 and 62 runs on a Cardinals team reached an NCAA Super Regional tournament.

“The obvious standout is that it’s a powerful left-hander,” said McDonnell. “You see guys going into the first round who hit 10 to 12 homers in college. This guy reached 23. And our park isn’t really home run friendly and he’s hit a lot of undisputed.”

Rushing watched Sunday’s draft from the “Omaha Room” at Louisville’s facility, the same location where another new Louisville product, pitcher Bobby Miller, celebrated his first-round pick by the Dodgers in the 2020 draft.

“I knew as soon as I got that call it was a great fit,” Rushing said. “Louisville players are doing a great job in the Dodgers organization. I look forward to getting started.”

Behind the plate there is no better example than Smith, who had already reached out to the club’s newest prospect – and his alma mater’s latest catch – within minutes of his selection on Sunday night.

“There’s a standard when you catch in our system,” McDonnell said.

And just like Smith, the Dodgers are hoping that with Rushing it will lead to professional success again. MLB draft: Dodgers bolster catching ranks with Dalton Rushing

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