Ques­tions per­sist be­hind the plate

As free agency looms for Wi­eters, O’s have depth at catcher, but no ready stars

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jon Meoli

With the 2016 sea­son fin­ished, there’s no bet­ter time than the present to take stock of the Ori­oles’ or­ga­ni­za­tional depth at ev­ery po­si­tion.

Over the next few weeks, The Bal­ti­more Sun will down each po­si­tion and sep­a­rate the players all through the sys­tem into three categories: who was “the man” there this year, who else was in the pic­ture, and who is work­ing through the mi­nors to join them.

To start, we’ll go to the catcher po­si­tion, one that could in­clude a lot of tur­moil this off­sea­son for the Ori­oles. The man: Matt Wi­eters showed him­self to be healthy af­ter parts of two sea­sons lost to Tommy John surgery, and he rode a hot first half to a fourth ca­reer All-Star nod be­fore end­ing the year bat­ting .243/ . 302/.409 with 17 home runs in 124 games. The for­mer first-round pick was back in Bal­ti­more af­ter he ac­cepted the team’s qual­i­fy­ing of­fer last off­sea­son, de­lay­ing his free agency for a sea­son and giv­ing him­self an op­por­tu­nity to re­build his value with the only team he’s ever known.

By most ac­counts, he did just that. Wi­eters was streaky all sea­son, with stretches in which he car­ried the of­fense in­ter­spersed with com­pletely fal­low pe­ri­ods. He also had a flair for the dra­matic — his game-win­ning home run on May 21 against the Los An­ge­les An­gels and his game-ty­ing blast in the Ori­oles’ ex­tra-in­nings win over the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs on Sept. 23 come to mind. He also home­red twice on the fi­nal day of the sea­son in NewYork to help send the Ori­oles to the play­offs.

De­fen­sively, he threw out 35 per­cent of would-be base steal­ers, just above his ca­reer av­er­age, though he rated among the worst catch­ers in the league at fram­ing pitches — that is, get­ting strike calls on pitches out­side the strike zone, and pre­sent­ing balls in­side the zone as strikes so they aren’t called as balls.

With free agency again loom­ing and a qual­i­fy­ing of­fer nei­ther side’s first choice, Wi­eters’ fu­ture is again in ques­tion.

At age 30, he’s es­sen­tially a fin­ished product, most of his value com­ing from the fact that he’s a catcher who can han­dle a bat. Matt Wi­eters

The al­ter­na­tives: Two other catch­ers saw time on the ma­jor league ros­ter this year: Caleb Joseph and Fran­cisco Pena. Joseph’s sea­son was a strug­gle through­out: He hit .174 with a .413 OPS and no home runs or RBIs in 49 games, and missed a month af­ter suf­fer­ing a tes­tic­u­lar in­jury on a foul ball. Pena hit .200 with a .513 OPS and a home run in 40 at-bats this year.

In the two years that Wi­eters was deal­ing with his in­jury, the catcher po­si­tion was more of an in­clu­sive propo­si­tion than this year. Pena and Joseph played once a week, if that, so nei­ther can be faulted for look­ing lack­ing when he was called upon. The fu­ture: By the im­per­fect and pos­si­bly mean­ing­less mea­sure of hav­ing an All-Star at ev­ery full-sea­son level in the mi­nors, the Ori­oles have plenty down on the farm. The jewel of that bunch, and one of the jew­els in the whole sys­tem, is Chance Sisco.

Sisco, named last month the Brooks Robinson Mi­nor League Player of the Year by the or­ga­ni­za­tion, hit .320/.406/.422 for Dou­ble-A Bowie this year, and home­red twice in the last week of the sea­son af­ter a pro­mo­tion to Triple-A Nor­folk. He’s just 21, and his car­ry­ing tool is his bat, but it takes a lot to catch at the ma­jor league level and Sisco isn’t quite there yet.

Else­where, Audry Perez hit .291 in his se­cond year with Nor­folk and at age 27 is a use­ful catch-and-throw op­tion to have around. Jonah Heim was prob­a­bly the best de­fen­sive catcher of the bunch, and be­lief was grow­ing this sea­son that he’d done enough to al­low that bat to even­tu­ally set­tle into a ma­jor league lineup, but he was dealt to Tampa Bay in July for Steve Pearce.

That opened up op­por­tu­ni­ties for mi­nor league free agent-turned-South At­lantic League bat­ting cham­pion Yer­min Mercedes, who hit .353 for Low-A Del­marva be­fore go­ing to High-A Fred­er­ick in Heim’s place. Mercedes, 23, hit .345 with 20 home runs be­tween the two lev­els. Alex Mur­phy (Calvert Hall) got more time be­hind the plate for Del­marva af­ter Mercedes was pro­moted, and hit 16 home runs in his age-22 sea­son. The skinny: The fact that there are a lot of players in the pic­ture doesn’t mean ev­ery­thing will be fine here for the Ori­oles. Sisco could be the long-term an­swer, but the short-term one isn’t ap­par­ent if Wi­eters walks. Joseph and Pena didn’t do any­thing this year to sug­gest they could fill in next year, though Joseph has plenty of track record as the de facto starter in 2014 and 2015, and pro­duced in that role.

The team be­lieves it will be in good shape whether Wi­eters is back or not, and per­haps with all these catch­ers who are hit­ting, it will break the mold of teams hav­ing glove-first back­stops as its top pri­or­ity. To some ex­tent, it has al­ready done so with Wi­eters. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how he’s re­garded by both the Ori­oles and the league in the next two months or so.

JERRY JACK­SON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Caleb Joseph, tag­ging out the Blue Jays’ Ryan Goins, bat­ted .174 with a .413 OPS and no home runs or RBIs in 49 games. He missed a month af­ter be­ing hurt by a foul ball.

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