Matt Wieters is gone, and he’s probably not coming back. The Orioles now have to replace the four-time all star and two-time gold glove catcher. Unfortunately, the free agent market is barren, and the Bird’s top prospect at the position may still be a year away defensively. Hey, Caleb Joseph, you up for this?
The 2016 season was rough on Joseph. He missed about a month of time with an injury to his testicles. And in the 49 games he did play, the stats were depressing: 132 at-bats, 23 hits, three doubles and not a single, solitary RBI. That’s a slash line of .174/.216/.197 and about a -1.0 WAR...Oh boy.
That said, it’s tough to judge a guy based off of an injury-hampered season in which he was barely playing towards the end of the year. The Orioles have won with Joseph behind the plate before. The can surely do it again.
Sisco needs more time
It’s no secret that Chance Sisco is the (not-so-distant) future at catcher for Baltimore. Depending on where you look, the 21-year-old is either the O’s best or second-best prospect in their system. By all accounts, he can already swing the stick at a major league level, evidenced by him slashing .323/.402/.434 across six minor league teams in four seasons. The left-handed hitter even appeared in this past summer’s Futures Game and hit a dong while doing so. He looks like the real deal.
However, only five of his 358 career minor league games have come at Triple-A Norfolk. Of course, it’s not unheard of for successful big leaguers to skip the final level of their organization’s farm system. Heck, Manny Machado never even spent an inning with the Tides and I’d say he turned out alright. But no one is expecting Sisco to be in the Machado stratosphere. So, a little seasoning in the International League is likely a good thing.
The catch (pardon the pun) with Sisco has always been his defensive ability. Early on, many were worried he couldn’t stay at catcher. At his point, those concerns are gone, but his ceiling still looks to only be that of a solid defender, and nothing more. Baseball America’s John Manuel said that Sisco “has made some progress” and that he “is a good athlete that has a chance to be an average defender.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of his glove.
If it matters, there were 103 attempted stolen bases on him last season over just 87 games between Bowie and Norfolk. He threw out just 24 percent of prospective thieves. One would hope that major league pitchers hold runners better than the farm hands. But either way, it sounds like he could use, at least, a couple more months tweaking a few things.
The options outside the organization either stink or are illogical
Wieters is the top free agent backstop. The argument can easily be made that Wilson Ramos is superior, but he is coming off of a torn ACL in the last week of the regular season and wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense for the O’s, who just need a healthy and reliable stopgap.
After that, you are talking about guys who are fringe starters. Guys like Jason Castro, Kurt Suzuki, Alex Avila and Nick Hundley. Meh. Are any of them markedly better than a healthy Joseph? Not really. Will they cost more than a platoon of Joseph and Francisco Pena together? Almost certainly. Pass.
Logically, you move onto the trade market. Last July, MLB Trade Rumors listed some available catchers. Long story, short: it’s a mixed bag. Tampa’s Hank Conger could be had. He is a solid pitch framer, but struggles everywhere else. Arizona’s Welington Castillo was a 2.4-WAR player in 2016 and is projected to make a reasonable $5.9 million in his final arbitration year, but could be a hot commodity. Chicago’s Miguel Montero and New York’s Brian McCann represent big contracts with experience, but it would be an odd decision to take on those salaries considering the team didn’t offer a QO to Wieters.
Beyond that, you have a group of more long-term solutions (Cameron Rupp, Chris Herrmann, Stephen Vogt, Derek Norris) that are all solid, but would require a more sizable package of prospects. Does Dan Duquette want to surrender part of the future for a player that they are hoping will be replaced by a minor leaguer soon? Doubtful (even though I said he would in my offseason prediction piece. I know, I’m dumb.).
The biggest problem here is that since the free agent catching market is so bad, any contender who needs a backstop will also be looking to trade. The prices for solid players will climb quickly and it may prove too rich for Baltimore’s blood.
Joseph can do this. If the 30-year-old has proved anything in his major league career, it is that the more often he plays, the better he will be. His best season so far was in 2015 when he was given a career-high 320 at-bats in 100 games. His .234/.299/.394 slash line and 2.2 WAR (Baseball Reference) is that of a starting major league catcher. If he could do that while making his measly projected $1 million salary, then the O’s will be in good shape.
And remember when Joseph really had a handle on the pitching staff, especially Ubaldo Jimenez? Coming into 2016, Jimenez owned a 2.92 ERA and .236 opponent’s batting average over 33 games with Joseph behind the plate. Overall, pitcher’s owned a 3.66 ERA during the 2015 season when they worked with Joseph. Not bad.
Plus, we know this guy can hit a little bit. Over eight seasons of minor league ball, he slashed .268/.326/.425. And if you take away 2016, he has a .223/.284/.376 line in the bigs. No, he’s not gonna light the world on fire, but you should be able to put him eighth or ninth and now that he will contribute with the bat every now and then while holding his own with the leather.
I know, I know. You cannot simply disregard an entire atrocious season. You shouldn’t. And this is not Joseph’s job with no competition in site. Sisco is going to have a shot in Spring Training and so will Pena. And you know Duquette will do some dumpster diving to find a no-risk free agent to play a few innings as well. Remember J.P Arencibia?
However, Joseph is a known commodity, for the most part. He is capable of playing major league baseball and is a good teammate who won’t cause waves if/when Sisco is ready to go. It’s easier and makes more sense than spending big on a free agent or trading one of the organization’s few prospects for a stopgap guy. Stick with Caleb and focus your offseason energy elsewhere, Dan.