Questions persist behind the plate
As free agency looms for Wieters, O’s have depth at catcher, but no ready stars
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.
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.