Matt Wieters was a Baltimore favorite. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to shed a tear when I heard the news that he wouldn't be back, and it’d also be untruthful to admit that I’m not rooting for a miraculous reunion in this free agency period.
But as the Orioles appear to be doing, it’s time to move on and set sights on a 2017 season without Wieters behind the dish. It’s a sad reality, but probably one I’ll have to live with.
Yesterday, the news of Jason Castro being snatched up by the Twins frightened some Orioles fans (see: always-wary Orioles Twitter). Comments have been flying that the O’s must make a move to solidify the position before 2017 Opening Day, and the Castro signing didn’t do much to help the mood of skeptics across Birdland.
It might seem like a scary proposition on the surface... but what if I told you that the Orioles didn’t need to sign a catcher from outside the system at all?
I know, you think I’m nuts. But this isn't some catchy idea to keep you reading this piece. It’s a legitimate, well thought-out notion that this team doesn’t need to spend on catching in free agency to be a contender in 2017.
Let’s first start with the simple truth.
Caleb Joseph is a valuable asset to the future of this ball club. Whether you think he can contribute on offense or not, there’s no arguing his place as an above-average catcher on a regular basis. His rapport the team’s arms is admirable — add that with his impressive defense and you get a sure-fire contributor in 2016, good bat or not.
However, it’s understandable to be concerned about the dip in offensive production with Joseph as the team’s primary catcher. There’s no sugarcoating his .174 season average or .216 on-base percentage, which might be a worse mark than the former.
If you’re worried about Joseph, you’re not alone.
But concluding that the only option to solidify the position is to reach on the free agent market is unfair to the situation at hand. If money weren’t much of a factor, surely it’d add up to spend whatever it took on Nick Hundley to add a veteran presence to both the lineup and locker room.
Money, however, is almost always the deciding factor with the Orioles — and poised to be light spenders this offseason, this is an organization that must choose to spend wisely.
With that said, is there much harm in working a solution that involves only the pieces currently in place within the organization? It’s not the sexy plan, but it could end up being the most profitable in the grand scheme of things in Duquette World.
When exploring the in-house options, it’s silly to not cut right to the chase — Chance Sisco.
By now, you’ve read about Sisco and his potential to become a staple in the team’s lineup for years to come. He’s one of the few prospects that has the ability to spark excitement, and when you take a look at his offensive numbers, that optimism is seemingly validated.
However, there’s been a recent trend within Orioles conversation circles about the fear of rushing a player like Sisco along too fast. The thought exists that Sisco’s emergence onto the Orioles roster too quickly — like many prospects — would hinder his development and thrust him into uncomfortable situation early in his young career.
It’s fair, I suppose, but I’m not a big believer in that idea. Good players are good players. The great ones end up adjusting, and at the end of the day, All-Star caliber players aren’t “ruined” because of early advancement by a month or two.
Regardless of whether Sisco makes his appearance with the big-league club in June or August, he is going to be who he is going to be at the dish. With Bowie in 2016, he was the organization’s best middle-lineup hitter, especially in clutch situations. With runners in scoring position, he went 30-89 (.337) with a .448 OBP in those clutch spots. That kind of talent is no aberration, nor will it vanish with a call-up.
Sisco’s strikeout percentage was a perfectly acceptable 17.3 percent with Bowie — combine that with a phenomenal 12.3 BB% and you have a legitimate projection that Sisco, at the dish, can do enough to fill with Wieters hole over the course of the season.
They’re mere projections, but they appear fairly safe for a guy who has been consistent mashing pitchers throughout the minor-leagues. (Don’t forget, he hit two HRs in his four games at Norfolk last year.)
Even if you take the position that Sisco won’t start the year in the MLB — which he likely won’t and shouldn’t — and argue that the O’s need a one-year stop gap, there’s real reason to believe that the final answer could already be on the team’s payroll.
Last season, Audry Perez, who will be 28 at the start of the season, hit .291 in Norfolk over the course of 306 at-bats, driving in 38 home runs with a .343 OBP against AAA pitching.
Francisco Pena, a guy we got a small glimpse of with the Birds last year, hit .246 with the Tides and didn't struggle terribly against the big-league arms that he saw when promoted. He was far from perfect, but there’s promise at the plate for a veteran who has put up encouraging numbers in the past.
Both Perez and Pena represent Spring Training battlers who can spend March alongside Joseph in a battle for two 25-man roster spots. It’d be a worth-watching battle and certainly bring out competition and development down in Florida before the season. For both prospects, there’s no question that such a battle would be profitable.
However, the counterargument surrounds upon potential inconsistency and question marks behind the plate, leading to the Hundley/O’s storyline. And while “Team Hundley” fans see a .301 2015 batting average and are quick to pull the trigger on a deal, there’s more to Hundley’s story than simple math.
Not only is his defensive ability shaky at best, the fact remains that he’s a 33-year-old catcher with an inconsistent track record. Anything more than a one-year deal is way too much of a risk, and even spending already limited resources on a questionable addition seems equal parts unwise and frightening.
There are a few more options within the Orioles price range, but nothing that jumps out as a must-add entering next spring. With spending money at a minimum, it’s becoming clear that signing a catcher might not be the best method of improving the makeup of the 2017 Orioles.
Imagine the following scenario...
Joseph enters the spring as a lock to be one of the team’s two catchers, setting up shop as the Opening Day pitch-caller while Perez and Pena battle alongside a developing Chance Sisco in Sarasota to earn a spot next to CaJo on the first roster of the year.
At the start of the season, Joseph and the best-performing catcher occupy the team’s two catching spots while Sisco and the other competitor begin the year in Norfolk to continue gaining valuable reps.
In June, assuming Sisco stays on track, he gets called up to join Joseph, giving the Orioles a brilliant one-two punch — a defensive catcher and a spark-plug at the dish who can continue to develop his defensive skills.
And all the while, another key offseason addition (signed by a sum of money that didn’t go to a risky catcher) is making plays to keep the Orioles in a position to contend.
On paper, it’s a situation that would be hardly frowned upon. Sure, it involves risks and the continued progression of Sisco’s offensive abilities against better pitching. But when it all boils down, is there really an offseason scenario that doesn’t come with risks?
The Orioles are in a tough spot. I’m not Dan Duquette, and don’t wish to be. He has his work cut out for him in the coming months — and whatever move he does make, it’ll be met with criticism from all angles.
Hopefully, no matter what the final decision adds up to, there is a realization throughout the Orioles organization that spending on a free-agent catcher doesn’t need to happen in order for the team to be successful next season.
There are many paths to building a postseason ball club.
At the end of the day, steering clear of overpaying could be the move that makes the difference.