How Will O’s Distribute Time Behind the Dish in ’19?

Chance Sisco in the batter's box..
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

Not too often in recent years have the Baltimore Orioles had a clearly known starting catcher on the roster. In the last five seasons, the Orioles have had had the same catcher behind the dish for 100 or more games just once: Matt Wieters in 2016.

I guess you could call the other four years a catcher-by-committee system for the O’s.

— In 2014, when Wieters was shut down early in the season and required Tommy John surgery, time behind the plate was split up with 77, 45, and 18 starts between then-rookie Caleb Joseph, Nick Hundley, and Steve Clevenger, respectively.

— In 2015, Wieters was still recovering from surgery early on in the year, limiting him to 55 games at catcher after returning in June. Joseph started 93 games, along with with eight starts from Ryan Lavarnway and six starts from Clevenger.

— 2016 was Wieters’ first full season back in as the starting backstop, and also his last year as an Oriole. He started 111 games, with Joseph handling 40 starts, and Francisco Pena taking care of 11.

— In 2017, Wieters signed with the Washington Nationals and the Orioles replaced him by signing Welington Castillo – who ended up starting 86 games – to pair with Joseph, who started 69. Pena also mixed in three starts and then-rookie Chance Sisco started four times.

— And lastly, this past season, Joseph led the workload of four catchers, with 79 starts behind the dish. Sisco started 43 games, rookie Austin Wynns started 33, and veteran Andrew Susac started seven times.

With 358 starts, 380 games, and 3,161.1 innings, Joseph was the most-used catcher for the Orioles from 2013 through 2018, and he didn’t even break into the majors until May of 2014. However, in recent news, the Orioles decided to non-tender Joseph to make him a free agent. His Orioles tenure featured a .224/.271/.353 slash line with 31 homers in 402 games – not quite what many wanted from him as a hitter. Defensively, he did record +37 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), which is the seventh-most by any catcher – with at least 3,000 innings at catcher – from 2014 through 2018. The catchers above him are Mike Zunino (+40), Russell Martin (+40), Yasmani Grandal (+44), Tyler Flowers (+45), Martin Maldonado (+47), and Buster Posey (+60).

With just three catchers – Wynns, Sisco, and Susac – on the 40-man roster now, the Orioles will look to add a veteran catcher via trade or free agency, according to Roch Kubatko of Kubatko also notes that there’s still a possibility Joseph could sign back with the Orioles, but the 32-year-old backstop “is drawing interest from a handful of teams.” I’d think a contending team with a clear starter could give Joseph a nice offer to be the backup.

So, who will carry the bulk of the time behind the plate for the Orioles in 2019? There’s no clear answer, but my best guess is that there will be competition in spring training to see who gets the two catcher spots on the Opening Day roster.

Austin Wynns behind the dish.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

Of the three currently on the 40-man roster, Wynns performed the best in 2018 when given his chance. The 27-year-old rookie slashed .255/.287/.382 with four homers in 42 games. In his short stint with the club, he was about average defensively. He’s fine with blocking pitches in the dirt and throwing runners out, but his below average pitch framing could be holding his defensive value back a tad, as is the -4 DRS he recorded. Wynns hasn’t been known as a top-or-mid-tier prospect in the Orioles system at any point, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep his solid production up in 2019, or if it was just some luck in a late rookie year.

Sisco, 23, has quite the opposite resume – but opposite 2018 season. The left-handed hitting catcher has been a top-10 prospect in the Orioles system since he was drafted in the second round out of high school in 2013. In 2017, the year he first got called up to the big leagues, Sisco was ranked 45th on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospect list. He’s mostly been scouted as an offense-first catcher who still had work to do defensively.

Yet after four seasons of hitting minor-league pitching very well from 2013 through 2017, his bat cooled off in the majors big time in 2018, costing him a spot on the major-league roster. In 63 games with the Orioles, Sisco slashed just .181/.288/.269 with a strikeout rate of 35.9 percent. He’ll need to get back on track offensively, as well as continue to improve his game behind the plate, to build himself a strong case to get consistent reps at catcher with the Orioles in 2019. With the recent title of a top prospect, my guess is that the club will give Sisco every opportunity to earn a starting position in spring training.

Susac, 28, has spent multiple seasons as a depth catcher for the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers prior to joining the Orioles organization in 2018. He has a career .221/.283/.373 slash line in just 300 career plate appearances, and Kubatko believes Susac will be on the list of players the Orioles will designate for assignment sometime this offseason. If that happens, it’s possible no team will claim him and he can stay in the organization as minor-league depth, but I’d be surprised if he starts any more than 10 games for the O’s in 2019.

If the Orioles do decide to add a veteran catcher to the club, I believe they’d be looking for a defensive-minded veteran who, as a back up or platoon option, will work with Wynns and Sisco on their games defensively.

According to MLBTradeRumors, the following catchers are free agents: Joseph, Hundley, Wieters, Drew Butera, A.J. Ellis, Yasmani Grandal, Chris Herrmann, Jose Lobaton, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Devin Mesoraco, James McCann, Wilson Ramos, Rene Rivera, and Stephen Vogt.

What could really help is if the Orioles bring in a catcher who is a decent or above-average pitch framer, to not only help the young pitching staff, but to also work with the two young backstops.

Among the free-agent options who would be a suitable backup catcher and are rated well as pitch framers, per Baseball Prospectus, this limits the list down to Maldonado, Rivera, and Herrmann. Maldonado is very well-known as an above-average defender and has started over 100 games behind the dish in each of the past two seasons. Unless Mike Elias wishes to have a veteran starter instead of a veteran backup, I doubt Maldonado will be coming to Baltimore.

This leaves us with Herrmann and Rivera.

Herrmann, 31, has spent his career being a very average backup player who is serviceable at catcher, first base, and in the outfield. He has 1,269.2 major-league innings as a catcher, 27 as a first baseman, and 532.2 as an outfielder. He isn’t the most ideal option for the Orioles, but he would be cheap and would give the club the option to carry him on the roster as well as both Wynns and Sisco, since Herrman can be used as a back up option at multiple positions.

Rivera, 35, is a career-long backup catcher who has never started 100-plus games in one season as a catcher, and he also has +26 DRS since he broke into the big leagues in 2004. As a veteran who is an above-average defender and probably isn’t looking to start anywhere, Rivera is a pretty good option for the Orioles to look into.

If I’m the one making the decisions, Rivera is the first catcher I’m on the phone with. If he signs to a deal, have him break camp as the back up catcher to Wynns or Sisco – whichever wins the job out of spring training

Which catcher would you like to see the Orioles add, if any at all? Do you think the Orioles will stick to one catcher as the starter for the year, or will they roll with a catcher-by-committee, as I named it earlier?

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