HOUSTON – In his only season as the starting catcher at the University of California, Korey Lee burst onto the scene as a junior in 2019 with impressive bat speed and power while flashing an arm that allowed him to lead the nation in throwing out attempted base stealers.
The Astros, lacking in elite catching depth in the Minor Leagues, selected Lee with the final pick of Monday’s first round (No. 32 overall) of the MLB Draft with hope he can move through the Minor Leagues quickly. It’s the first time the Astros took a catcher in the first round since Jason Castro of Stanford in 2008.
“I really feel like this is the right combination, the right package for us, and feel like he’s a player that can move relatively quickly and impact our big league club in short order,” said Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow. “Not this year, but in the next few years.”
Luhnow said the Astros weren’t necessarily anticipating taking a catcher but they couldn’t pass up the chance to fill a need. Lee is a 6-foot-1 right-hander who was ranked as the No. 119 Draft prospect by MLB.com.
“We’ve had challenges keeping our pipeline filled with catchers we believe are going to be Major League regulars,” Luhnow said. “We’ve had to trade a couple of them in the past few years, and so we felt like that’s an area we needed. It wasn’t the catcher that made us draft him; it was this player and his overall potential to add value at this point in the Draft. We felt it was the best player available for the Houston Astros.”
With No. 68 overall pick in the second round, the Astros took University of Mississippi shortstop Grae Kessinger, who hit .336 as a junior with 60 runs, 46 RBIs, 18 doubles and five homers. He had more walks (37) than strikeouts (31) and was 16-of-19 in stolen base tries.
Kessinger is the grandson of Don Kessinger, who was a six-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner for the Chicago Cubs as well as an All-American shortstop (1964) and head coach (1991-96) at Ole Miss. His father, Kevin, played at Ole Miss and was drafted by the Cubs and played in the organization before his career ended due to injury. His uncle, Keith, played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1993.
Lee last year hit .338 with 15 homers and 57 RBIs in 50 games for the Bears with a .419 on-base percentage. He threw out 12 of the 27 runners who tried to steal against him.
“It was a dream come true,” Lee said of being drafted by Houston. “I’ve been thinking about it my entire life, growing up around baseball and watching the game and learning the game. I couldn’t be happier to be with the Houston Astros.”
Lee originally committed to Arizona but had his scholarship offer pulled when the Wildcats made a coaching change. He grew up idolizing Joe Mauer and said defense and working with the pitching staff and building relationships mean everything to him.
“Just kind of building relationships with everyone I’m going to be around and the catching aspect of things is the biggest thing on the field,” he said. “You’re like the captain on the field.”
Cal coach Michael Neu said Lee’s 2019 season was unexpected considering he was the backup catcher in his first two years at Cal. They didn’t expect him to develop so quickly.
“We knew he was going to play for us this year and what he did was unbelievable,” he said. “He just really stepped up and developed to a level that was beyond our expectations. It doesn’t really surprise us [where he was drafted] with the tools he has. He’s got big-time pro tools. I understand why he was picked where he was picked.”
Neu praised Lee’s competitiveness behind the plate and his ability to rise to big moments. He hit behind Andrew Vaughn, who went No. 3 overall to the White Sox, and routinely came up with big hits because Vaughn was getting pitched around or walked so often.
“That was probably a question mark,” Neu said. “We hadn’t seen him be in that spot before and he did it. He had some enormous hits and some huge moments where he showed how competitive and how he could slow the game down and a big-time player in big spots.”
The Draft continues on Tuesday with Rounds 3-10. The MLB.com preview show begins at 12:30 p.m. ET, with exclusive coverage beginning at 1 p.m. ET. Go to MLB.com/Draft for complete coverage, including every pick on Draft Tracker, coverage and analysis from MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, the complete order of selection and more. And follow @MLBDraft and @MLBDraftTracker on Twitter.