Orioles’ pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on Tuesday, with Wednesday marking the first workout of the 2019 season for the league’s worst franchise of a season ago. Therein lies the irony.
Pitchers and catchers took to the water-soaked fields Wednesday without a true starting catcher and only three spots nailed down in the rotation. While we will tackle the rotation and the bullpen in this space in due time, today we’ll focus solely on the catchers.
Right now, the Orioles open camp with a competition on their hands between Chance Sisco, Austin Wynns, Carlos Pérez, Andrew Susac, Martin Cervenka, and Jesús Sucre. Sucre has yet to report to camp due to visa issues.
The ballclub was hoping to bring back former starting catcher and fan favorite, Caleb Joseph, on a minor league deal, but the backstop inked a Major League deal with Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday.
With no set starter as of yet, the favorites for the job would almost certainly have to be Sisco and Wynns, though Sucre could have something to say about that if he gets his visa issues cleared up in the not-too-distant-future.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the candidates for the starting and backup catchers in 2019.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
The former second-round pick out of Santiago High School in Corona, CA was once ranked as high as 50th on MLB’s Top 100 Prospects list. After making his MLB debut in September 2017, Sisco hit .333 in limited action, leading many to believe that he would take over the catching duties full-time in 2018. While Sisco made his claim last spring and traveled north with the club, he got off to a slow start and never really rebounded.
After two demotions to the minors and another September call-up, Sisco’s season ended on the disabled list (now the”injured list”) with concussion-like symptoms after taking a foul tip off the chin in a September contest with the Chicago White Sox.
Sisco, whose bat has always been ahead of his glove, struggled both offensively and defensively. While he started the season throwing out 9-of-18 potential base stealers, Sisco only caught one of the next 18 would-be base stealers to end the season.
At the plate, Sisco slashed just .181/.288/.269 in his first taste of extended big league experience. He didn’t fare much better after his demotion, as his batting line was the worst of his career at the minor league level. The career .306 minor league hitter slashed just .242/.344/.352 in 38 games with Norfolk.
The Orioles hope Sisco can rebound from his forgettable 2018 campaign and regain the confidence that made him a top prospect prior to last season. If he can, it will certainly go a long way in filling one of many major holes on the roster.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
Wynns appeared to be a minor league lifer – merely organizational depth who was little more than a defensive catcher with offensive limitations. However, back-to-back solid offensive seasons in ’16 and ’17 put Wynns on the Orioles radar, and on June 5 of last season, he made his major-league debut.
Though a demotion followed in the coming weeks, Wynns was back for good by July 21 and played in 32 of a possible 63 games to end the season, basically splitting time with Joseph down the stretch.
The former 10th round pick out of Cal State University Fresno held his own against Major League pitching, batting .255 in 110 AB. Defensively, Wynns threw out 32% of base runners and committed just one error in over 300 innings behind the plate.
If Wynns isn’t on the Opening Day roster on March 28th, it would have to be a surprise to more than just me.
Pérez spent time as the primary backup catcher of the Los Angeles Angels in 2015 before taking over as the primary catcher in 2016, and was little more than serviceable both offensively and defensively.
Playing in 86 and 87 games in those two seasons, respectively, Pérez slashed just .229/.277/.335, leading the Angels to move in a different direction the following season.
As part of a numbers crunch, Pérez saw limited action with the Angels in 2017 before spending time with both the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers in 2018, slashing .133/.170/.222 in only 39 games the last two seasons.
Though some feel Pérez is limited defensively, he has always had a strong arm, throwing out 38% of base runners in his big league career. While Pérez was probably signed as minor league depth, if there is any team with which he has a shot at breaking camp, it would be the Orioles, and should he remain in the organization all season, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t at least get a cup of coffee with the big league club.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
Drafted in the second round in 2011 by the San Francisco Giants, Susac showed promise as a rookie in 2014, batting .273 in 35 games for the eventual World Champions. Such promise, in fact, that both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him in their top 100 lists prior to 2015. Since then, however, his career has been marred by injuries and ineffectiveness. A low-risk signing for the Orioles last year, Susac’s 2018 season ended much like Sisco’s, with a foul tip knocking him out of commission as he fractured his wrist in late July. Hopefully the Orioles packed a ton of bubble wrap for spring training.
The fact that Susac is even still with the organization is nothing short of a miracle. Sitting in Sarasota late last season with a cast on his arm and unable to do much, Susac opted to return home for two weeks instead of remain at the facilities, prompting the Orioles to place him on the restricted list.
For those not in the know, Baseball-Reference defines the restricted list as a “compendium of players who are out of organized baseball but are not free agents. A team can request that a player be placed on the restricted list if that player has left the team without a valid reason, or has announced his intention to retire but is still of an age or level of skill that could allow him to return to professional baseball in the future.”
Though he was reinstated a month later, Susac was designated for assignment in January and cleared waivers, allowing the Orioles to outright him to the Norfolk Tides. Looking to rejuvenate his career, Susac would probably need to outplay every catcher on the roster to break camp with the club.
The now-26-year-old Czech Republic native burst onto the scene at Bowie last season after the Orioles claimed him in the minor league phase of the Rule V draft from the San Francisco Giants.
Cervenka slashed .258/.317/.457 while hitting a career-high 15 home runs for the Baysox in 2018, besting his previous high of eight set the previous season, a feat he accomplished in 16 fewer games. He was named the Eastern League Player of the Month and the Orioles Minor League Player of the Month for July after hitting .364 with 7 home runs and 25 RBI.
Though not a included on the 40-man roster this spring, Cervenka has been invited to spring training and will compete for a spot on the 25-man , though he seems like a long shot at best. It is more likely that Cervenka returns to Bowie, or even Norfolk, to receive the bulk of the playing time at catcher.
Jesus Sucre is included last on this list simply because he isn’t in camp yet. The Orioles had a locker and a name plate set up for him on Tuesday, but have since removed them. The former Seattle Mariner and Tampa Bay Ray is having visa issues and remains in his native Venezuela until a resolution can be reached.
Sucre is a defense-first catcher, known for his pitch framing. He has also thrown out 32% of base runners. His bat is an afterthought, as his best season saw him slash .256/.289/.409 with seven home runs over 62 games in 2017. He is a career .223 hitter in parts of six seasons.
Of note are the five pitching appearances he has made in his career, including one against the Orioles last July where he allowed one hit and one inherited runner to score in .2 IP of a 15-5 loss. Though the Orioles are in the market for more pitching, I’m pretty sure that’s not why they signed him.
All joking aside, should Sucre get his visa issues sorted out in a timely manner, he has a legitimate shot at breaking camp with the club. A young, rebuilding team needs a veteran catcher that can help the pitchers out as much as possible, and Sucre provides that.
While it is far too early to figure out the 25-man roster, considering that position players don’t even report until Sunday, if I was a betting man I’d say Austin Wynns is the Opening Day catcher with Jesús Sucre filling the role of backup.
I think the Orioles want Sisco catching everyday somewhere, and I just don’t think that, even on a rebuilding club, that will be in Baltimore. My feeling is that Sisco will start the season at Norfolk, and Cervenka will be tasked with improving on his breakout season back at Bowie. If all goes well, both should receive promotions before too long.
The Orioles have the first pick in the first year player draft in June. Many were predicting they would take high school shortstop Bobby Witt, Jr. in that spot. However, Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman has risen to the top of just about every draft board in the country and is considered close to MLB-ready, making him the top draft prospect to many throughout the industry.
The switch-hitting Rustchman was the College World Series MVP last season and slashed .408/.505/.628 in 250 AB while walking more than he struck out for the Beavers in his sophomore season.
My point? A rebuilding franchise needs a young catcher who can grow with a young pitching staff. The tantalization of taking Rutschman with the top pick may be too great for the Orioles to pass up, meaning that this catching competition may be a one-and-done scenario.
But again, it is far too early to tell.