At the risk of becoming known for suggesting the Orioles should sign under the radar nobody's instead of high profile free agent upgrades, I'm going to do it again anyway. I think the Orioles should sign recently DFA'd George Kottaras. He was designated for assignment by the Royals because they signed Francisco Pena to a big league deal leaving them with three catchers on their major league roster. The Orioles should scoop him up to be their back up to Matt Wieters.
Coming off of a season where he only batted .180, it's not hard to see why the Royals felt they were better off without him. Kansas City is not known for being a sabermetrically inclined front office but it doesn't take an office full of saber nerds to see the glaring numbers jumping off of his Baseball Reference page. Over the past two seasons, Kottaras has posted on base percentages of .349 and .351. Over 335 plate appearances, he got on base at the 10th highest rate of all catchers with a minimum of 300 plate appearances. Granted, that's cherry picking a little bit and I'm not including Mike Napoli who transitioned to first base last year but it's still pretty impressive.
For comparison, Matt Wieters' on base percentage over that same time frame is just .308. Obviously, there's more to catching than just getting on base but reaching base is Kottaras' primary skill as a hitter. He also has a fair amount of power with a career slugging percentage of .406. His career line is .214/.324/.406 with 29 home runs in just 820 plate appearances. He's accumulated just less than two seasons worth of PA's over his six year career.
Now 30 years old, Kottaras will turn 31 during the 2014 season. With less mileage and innings on his legs, he shouldn't decline as fast as some other catchers who have been taking a daily pounding on their knees every day for years.
But what about the average that hovers around the Mendoza Line you might ask? And I'd answer that while you'd never want a player to have a batting average that low, a batter can get away with it while he's getting on base 35% of the time. Not making outs is extremely important to providing value from the batter's box. Even though he's not getting a ton of base hits, my mouth starts to drool a little bit when I see his 19% and 17.7% walk rates from the last two seasons.
Kottaras certainly isn't perfect. If he was, he would've become a starting catcher by now. His primary flaw is his complete inability to throw out runners attempting to steal against him. For his career, he has only thrown out 33 of the 184 runners who have attempted to steal against him. Runners have been successful 82% of the time against him, which is pretty staggering. If the Orioles were to sign him, they may want to limit his exposure against teams that like to run heavily.
As a left handed hitter, Kottaras has primarily been deployed against right handed pitching throughout his career. As a backup catcher who hits left handed, it's pretty easy for a manager to hide him from same handed pitching by only starting him on days when a northpaw was on the mound. For his career, Kottaras has a .220/.319/.430 line against right handed pitching. Against southpaws, he has a line of .188/.343/.312. It may be a little tough to see which is demonstrably better. Thankfully we have stats like wRC+, which are park and league adjusted as well. For his career, Kottaras has a wRC+ against righties of 101 which is just above major league average. Against lefties, he's accumulated a wRC+ of 87. Still not bad.
Matt Wieters has developed into a much better hitter off of left handed pitching than right so it makes sense to pair him with a hitter who hits better against righties. Matt Wieters' splits according to wRC+ are an excellent 122 versus lefties and a below average 87 against righties. At this point, the samples are big enough that we can begin to put some faith in Wieters' splits. It has also been shown that for some reason switch hitters' platoon splits stabilize faster than hitters that only hit from one side.
After releasing Taylor Teagarden last September and with the pending free agency of Chris Snyder, the Orioles are left with only one other catcher projected to be on the major league roster besides Matt Wieters. That would be Steve Clevenger, a local product who came over from the Cubs along with Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Clevenger has posted some decent minor league statistics but has struggled in his brief exposure to major league pitching. His career major league line is .204/.262/.279 in 244 trips to the plate. He'll also be 28 at the beginning of the 2014 season so he may not have as much upside as you might think.
The Orioles can improve their backup catching situation by signing Kottaras. It would cost somewhere around $1 million on a one year contract to do it, and he would have another year of team control afterwards. Since they would have to spend around $500k to carry Clevenger, the incremental cost is only that same $500k. Kottaras has been worth 1.8 fWAR over the last two seasons or just about a win per season. If he can provide similar value to the Orioles for a very minimal cost, I'd say that's a move they should make.