Plenty of negative words have been written this year about the Orioles’ farm system, and nearly all of it has been deserved. For the most part, the Baltimore organization is bereft of potential major-league talent, with many of their top prospects either graduating to the big club (Dylan Bundy), injured (Hunter Harvey), traded (don’t get me started), or just simply having poor seasons.
One thing nobody can say, though, is that the O’s lack talent at catcher. Amazingly, the Baltimore organization will be sending at least six catchers to various All-Star games by the end of the year. Everyone knows Matt Wieters, but the other five might not be household names quite yet:
Audry Perez, Norfolk Tides
The O’s purchased Perez last offseason from the Rockies, and he proceeded to a slash an anemic .243/.279/.303 over 282 plate appearances for Norfolk in 2015 while sharing time with Steve Clevenger. This year has been a completely different story: Perez is hitting .292/.355/.406 as the primary catcher for the Tides.
The 27-year-old Perez isn’t really a prospect and was acquired for organizational depth, but it was still a bit of a surprise when he didn’t get a call-up after Caleb Joseph landed on the DL. Instead, that nod went to Francisco Pena, whose .491 OPS at the time didn’t exactly compare favorably to Perez’s .815 mark.
The fact that Pena got the call instead tells you all you need to know about what the O’s think of Perez’s defense. It was clear with Clevenger in 2014-15 that the O’s simply aren’t willing to carry a catcher whose defense isn’t up to snuff in their eyes - because of that, Perez can probably get comfortable in triple-A.
Chance Sisco, Bowie Baysox
If you know the name of one minor league catcher, it’s probably Sisco, the Orioles’ second round pick in 2013. Considered by many to be the top position player prospect in the Baltimore organization, Sisco is doing this year what he’s done at every stop of his minor league career so far: hit for average and get on base.
In 2016, Sisco is hitting .302/.394/.392 despite being young for the double-A level at just 21 years old. The guy can flat-out hit, but a question mark for Sisco is his power, as evidenced by his nearly identical, Markakis-like OBP and slugging percentage.
The bigger question, though, is his defense. His bat looks very promising as a catcher, but for that to come to fruition he has to remain a catcher - a first baseman who hits six home runs in a season isn’t going to work. Most scouting reports have Sisco’s defense as subpar, so he’ll need to work hard on turning himself into a guy who’s at least competent behind the dish. If he can do that, his days in an Oriole uniform might not be too far away.
Jonah Heim, Frederick Keys
Heim was the Orioles’ 4th round pick in 2013, and he’s an intriguing prospect. On one hand, he’s hitting .230/.318/.358 in Frederick, which might cause you wonder why he started for the Carolina League All-Stars in the first place. On the other hand, he’s big and raw, and the Orioles’ brass seem to think the potential is there for him to become a much better hitter than he is right now.
He’s also considered to be a good defender, which is a big part of why he was named to the All-Star squad. According to Dan Farnsworth of Fangraphs, he has a “plus arm with average feet, and should have good enough actions behind the plate to at least be an average big league receiver overall.”
That’s a big deal - if Heim can improve his bat, it doesn’t seem like he’ll have the “can he stay at catcher?” questions that plague so many promising minor league backstops.
Alex Murphy, Delmarva Shorebirds
Murphy was drafted in the 6th round of - you guessed it - the 2013 draft. The third high school catcher taken out of the first seven picks for the O’s that year, Murphy didn’t have to travel far to begin his pro career; he played high school ball at Calvert Hall in North Baltimore.
Murphy has battled injuries since the start of his pro career; shoulder surgery shut him down in August of 2014, and a sports hernia held him to just 49 games last year. This year, though, he’s healthy and making the most of it.
The 21-year-old Murphy is hitting .244/.313/.433 in 323 plate appearances, which is already more PA’s than he’s had in any professional season so far. It’s far too early to really know what the O’s have in Murphy, but he’s off to a good start.
Yermin Mercedes, Delmarva Shorebirds
Yes, the Shorebirds sent two catchers to the All-Star game for the South Atlantic League. That was mostly made possible by the fact that “catcher” is a stretch for Mercedes. He’s started about half of his games there this season, spending most of the rest at DH and a few at first base.
The Nationals originally signed Mercedes out of the Dominican Republic, but he found himself in the independent Pecos League in 2014. There, he hit .411/.453/.801, which is...not terrible. That understandably got him noticed by the Orioles, and he’s now in his second season with Delmarva.
Mercedes is listed at 5’11”, 175 pounds, but based on a quick Google image search, that weight seems, um, inaccurate. He looks like a pretty big guy, which might explain the power that he’s consistently shown throughout his career. This year, he’s hitting a ridiculous .364/.411/.565, which gives him the highest OPS and second-highest batting average among SALLY league hitters with at least 200 plate appearances.
At 23, Mercedes is a little old for Delmarva. He also seems like more of a DH than a catcher. Those two facts alone put a significant damper on his prospect status, but if he’s able to keep hitting at anywhere close to this level after a promotion or two, people will start to pay attention.
At the end of the day, all of these guys are prospects (with the exception of Perez), and prospects fail more often than they succeed. Still, it’s better to have four catching prospects than none. The Orioles’ farm system as a whole is pretty awful, but the catcher position looks promising for the future.