Baltimore Orioles: Unpacking the current catching situation
By Tim Smart
There’s an adage in football: if you have two quarterbacks, you have none. The Baltimore Orioles now have six catchers with invites to spring training – is that too many?
After the Baltimore Orioles released Caleb Joseph, fans in Birdland were left wondering how the O’s would address the catching situation in Baltimore. Would the Orioles look outside the organization and sign a veteran free-agent? Would they save their money and look for an internal solution?
Well, the Orioles have signed two free-agent catchers this offseason but neither has the clout one might have expected a few months ago. Does this mean that Mike Elias and the Orioles have faith in Chance Sisco establishing himself as the primary catcher in Baltimore?
Sisco struggled during his time in the majors last year and as a result, the Orioles shuttled him back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk for much of the season.
He has 206 career major league plate appearances and has posted a .197/.306/.320 slash line with a well below average 58 OPS+. However, Sisco is still young; 2019 will be his age-24 season and he has plenty of time for the bat to come around, should the Orioles let him get the major league reps.
Austin Wynns is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. I wrote a few weeks ago about Wynns potentially becoming an everyday catcher for the Orioles in 2019. I still stand by the statement but there’s admittedly a lot of optimism in it.
Wynns is a capable defender and threw out 32% of would be base-stealers last year, but he needs to improve at the plate. There are encouraging signs, like the .796 OPS he put up in a full season at Double-A Bowie in 2017, but the 83.8 mph average exit velocity and the 4.2% walk rate leave something to be desired.
The free-agent signings
The Orioles have reached into the free-agent market to find help behind the plate, though both of the catchers they’ve signed have been brought in on minor-league contracts.
Jesus Sucre is the most recent addition, the Orioles having signed him on Friday for a reported $850k assuming that Sucre reaches the majors. The deal comes with an invite to spring training, where Sucre will showcase his abilities for the Orioles’ brass.
Sucre is a defensive catcher. He’s thrown would be base-stealers out at a 32% clip over his career, good for four points above the league average, and has been an effective game caller. But he’s a dreadful hitter; in 73 games with the Tampa Bay Rays last year, Sucre hit .209 with a .500 OPS, good for a 35 wRC+.
Similar to what Caleb Joseph might’ve brought to Baltimore, Sucre could provide a veteran presence with capable defensive skills while being an offensive liability.
In addition to Sucre, the Orioles have also added Carlos Perez this offseason. Early in January, the Orioles signed Perez to a minor-league contract worth $650k, assuming Perez makes it to the majors. The contract includes an invite to spring training.
Like Sucre, the Orioles didn’t sign Perez for his bat. In 212 games across four seasons, Perez has hit .215 with a .576 OPS and just 11 home-runs. Perez posted a 19.6% hard-hit rate in 2018, almost 15 percentage points below the league average. He does have a career 38% caught stealing rate but the bat is a real issue. He posted a single-digit OPS+ for the second consecutive year in 2018.
The other two in-house options
Keeping up with the trend we have going, Martin Cervenka is primarily a defensive catcher, with good pop times and who occasionally shows plus-power. He struggled at the plate early in his career (2011-2015) but has come on strong the past two years.
In 2017, Cervenka hit .278 with a .760 OPS for High-A Lynchburg. He improved on that in 2018, hitting .258/.317/.457 with 15 home-runs for Double-A Bowie (the first time in his career with double-digit homers).
It took Cervenka seven years to make it to Double-A but he finally got there in 2018 and showed enough upside to keep us intrigued. By leaving him off the 40-man roster this offseason, the Orioles made him eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December. However, he went unselected and the Orioles retained his services for the upcoming season.
Cervenka has upside as a depth piece but he can’t be relied upon to serve as the Orioles’ primary catcher in 2019.
The same can be said about Andrew Susac, who the Orioles designated for assignment to make room for infielder Hanser Alberto in mid-January.
Susac made it through waivers and is currently a non-roster invite who’ll be fighting not just for a spot at the major league level, but one in the organization in general.
Once a heralded prospect in the San Francisco Giants system, Susac has spent the past three years trying to stay healthy and prove that he’s a viable major league option behind the plate.
Unfortunately for Susac, he posted a .269 OPS for the Orioles in his brief stint in Baltimore last year and didn’t leave a great impression on either the old front office, or the new one.
So where does that leave the Orioles?
Susac and Cervenka are minor league depth pieces, and likely not much more than that. Spending a few weeks with the major league club in Sarasota should help familiarize the two with the major league pitching staff, but neither catcher can be relied upon to provide valuable innings in Baltimore in 2019.
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Perez will likely end up spending the majority of 2019 in Norfolk, potentially being used in Baltimore should injuries affect one of the other guys. Sucre probably stands a better chance of making the 40-man than Perez does, but neither of them should be relied upon to handle the primary catching duties for the Orioles next year.
Sisco likely represents the future for the Orioles, assuming that he can figure out how to hit major league pitching. He should get every opportunity to develop and will likely head into Sarasota as the primary catcher for this Orioles team, with Wynns serving as the backup guy.
Signing Sucre and Perez shows that the Orioles want to let Chance Sisco develop and become their primary catcher. He needs to stay healthy, but Sisco should be the guy going forward.