If the Baltimore Orioles are in the market for a veteran catcher, who should they be looking at?
While I wish I was providing my thoughts on why a future Hall of Famer, I’ll even take a 3.0 fWAR player at this point, should sign with the Baltimore Orioles, it just isn’t going to happen at any point over the final few weeks of the offseason. Instead, Mike Elias and his staff will look to bring in low-cost veterans to act as bridges to, hopefully, better times. This strategy makes it difficult to muster excitement as we head into the 2019 season, but it’s the right strategy.
The Orioles will once again find themselves at the bottom of the American League East and have a very long list of questions concerning their roster. There may be a few answers down in the minor leagues, but it’s hard to find a prospect who doesn’t need at least another year of seasoning, outside of maybe Hunter Harvey who at times looked tremendous in Double-A. The obvious question with Harvey is the yearly question of, is he healthy?
One of the top positions of concern in 2019 is catcher. MASN.com’s Steve Melewski touched on this topic Sunday highlighting how thin the Orioles are at the position after designating Andrew Susac for assignment. Only Austin Wynns and Chance Sisco remain on the 40-man roster, with four-year major league veteran Carlos Perez added to the organization on a minor league deal.
Melewski’s report is yet another piece that suggests Sisco is in Norfolk to begin 2019, not ideal for someone who had so much hype as a prospect, but also not the end of the world. Sisco is only 23 and was attempting to improve his defense and adjust to the major leagues on one of the worst teams in MLB history. Let’s go with this plan and assume Sisco is finding his groove at Harbor Park. Who can the Orioles add to complement Wynns, in the meantime?
Veteran backstop options for the Baltimore Orioles.
None of these guys are going to be major attractions at Camden Yards, however, if Elias does decide to bring in a catcher, he has a few options to choose from among a small group of veterans capable of helping to mold this pitching staff and help catchers like Wynns, Sisco, and Martin Cervenka in their development.
One option that sticks out is A.J. Ellis. The 37-year-old backstop is coming off a season with the San Diego Padres in which he hit .272 with a .378 OBP in 66 games. His pitch framing is horrendous, he isn’t known for an ability to gun down runners on the basepaths, and 60 games is likely about all a team will get out of him, so targeting Ellis means the Orioles are fairly confident in Wynns being the primary catcher. What Ellis excels at is calling a game. Having covered the Padres for the 2018 season, I can’t tell you how many times Austin Hedges credited Ellis for making him a better catcher and clubhouse presence. He was also highly successful against left-handed pitching, hitting .294 against southpaws (Wynns hit .196 against LHP and .297 against RHP).
Formerly known as Clayton Kershaw‘s personal catcher, Ellis would be a cheap, one-year option who isn’t atrocious at the plate, but how willing is he to sign with a team coming off 115 loses? I expect it’s more likely that he waits for a contending team to come calling.
Will the addition of former Cincinnati Reds hitting coach Don Long mean Devin Mesoraco gets a look? Mesoraco had quite the 2014 season with the Reds, hitting 25 home runs and earning an All-Star nod. Unfortunately, he has appeared in just 179 games and hasn’t hit higher than .221 since. The Reds traded him to the New York Mets last year, in exchange for Matt Harvey, where Mesoraco hit .222 with a .306 OBP and .715 OPS, his highest mark since 2014.
Defensive options for the Baltimore Orioles.
If Baltimore wants a catcher who is a little more defensive minded, Martin Maldonado is still available, for a price. Of the remaining catchers on the market, Maldonado will likely earn the heftiest contract and is projected for the highest fWAR in 2019 (1.0), other than old friend Matt Wieters (1.3).
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Maldonado split his time with the LA Angels and Houston Astros, slashing .231/.257/.351 with nine home runs, 18 doubles, and a 98/16 K/BB ratio. A 2017 Gold Glove winner, Maldonado has the quickest pop time to second base among catchers on the market and has the fourth-strongest arm from behind the plate, according to Baseball Savant (Jorge Alfaro, Alfredo Gonzalez, J.T. Realmuto sit ahead of him). He is also one of the better pitch framers in baseball and was graded as one of the top overall defensive catchers, according to Fangraphs. His 49% caught-stealing rate in 2018 was a career-high.
He would be a major upgrade over both Wynns and Sisco who rank near the bottom of the league in both arm strength and pop time. We aren’t sure how much Elias is willing to spend on free agents, but Maldonado could be wise investment for a team who needs to upgrade their defense behind the plate.
It’s hard to tell how Elias will address the catching situation, if at all. Ideally, Chance Sisco has a successful spring training and then splits time with Wynns behind the plate. I’m not ready to give up on Sisco, but he has to show something more than a .181 batting average. However, if the Orioles decide to bring in another backstop, there are viable one-year options on the market that can bring a variety of different skill sets to the organization, both on and off the field.
You play GM. Do you sign a free agent, if so, who? Are you rolling with the current roster options? Let us know, Baltimore Orioles fans!