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Catcher Caleb Joseph struggled to find success in 2018

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The Orioles’ veteran catcher had a season to forget, which included a demotion to the minors in the middle of May.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Joseph was drafted by the Orioles in the 7th round of the 2008 MLB Draft after playing his college baseball at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. The 6 foot 3 catcher spent seven years in the minor leagues before making his major league debut.

A late-bloomer of sorts, the right-handed hitting Joseph didn’t even get a sniff of the big leagues until 2014, at the age of 28. From perusing his Baseball Reference page, one can see that in his first two seasons Joseph made $515,000 and $523,500. The major league minimum those two years — 2015 and 2016 — was $507,500, according to Statista.

In 2017 — one year after his zero RBI season — Joseph lost his arbitration case against the Orioles and was paid $700,000. He made $1.25 million in 2018 and he becomes a free agent in 2021, per Baseball Reference.

With his price tag increasing and his production at the plate stagnant, it’s fair to wonder whether Joseph has a role on this rebuilding Orioles club. Youth is no longer on his side; he will turn 33 midway through the 2019 season and he owns a career .224/.271/.353 batting line in parts of five big league seasons.

When the O’s headed north this spring, Joseph broke camp with a share of the team’s catching duties. His platoon partner was originally the left-handed hitting Chance Sisco. But on May 17, roughly a month and a half into the season, the right-handed side of the catcher platoon was optioned to the minors.

For the first month of the season, Joseph hit .137/.170/.216. He perked up a bit at the plate in May, hitting .269/.269/.538 in 26 at-bats, but it was not enough to save him from being sent down.

At the time of his demotion, Joseph was hitting .182/.203/.325 overall for the Birds. In 88 at-bats with the Norfolk Tides, he hit .273/.340/.364 with two home runs and 14 RBI. His banishment ended when he was recalled to the Orioles on June 19.

He had an uneven final three and a half months in the bigs, hitting .161 in June, .340 in July, .145 in August and .286 in September/October. Even with a few decent months sprinkled in there during the second half of the season, his triple slash line was never able to recover from a slow start.

July was by far his best month at the plate, when he compiled a .397 on-base percentage and .472 slugging percentage to go along with a high batting average. But like the rest of the year, he was unable to hit for much power or drive in many runs, which have been weak spots for him for some time.

For what it’s worth, Joseph hit better at Camden Yards in 2018 than he did on the road. But it’s all relative considering his less than desirable season-long batting line. At home, he slashed .256/.299/.364 in 41 games, while he hit .184/.211/.279 in 41 games on the road.

He finished the year with a .219/.254/.321 batting line, including three home runs and 17 RBI in 265 at-bats.

In 2018, Joseph threw out 20 of 60 base-stealers, good for a 33% caught stealing percentage. That was a large increase from the previous year, 2017, when he only threw out 18%. But his best CS% was still his rookie year in 2014, when he put up a 40% mark.

Interestingly enough, Joseph proved to be one of the more outspoken members of the Orioles this past season. He made some noise towards the end of the season with his comments in a Baltimore Sun article, saying the following about the Orioles losing season: “It’s shameful, especially for somebody who was on a 97-win team just a few years ago. It’s ridiculous. We’ve lost so many games and it seems like losing is the new winning. It’s unacceptable.”

While those comments are refreshing to hear from a player and undoubtedly true, the words may have not carried that much weight considering his performance on the team. He showed leadership and resolve, but it still may not be enough to save him a roster spot in the future.

With the Orioles determined to slash payroll further as they head into the next year of their rebuild, its hard to see them keeping a catcher like Joseph at his current price or higher. Including Joseph, the Orioles currently have four catchers on their 40-man roster. The three others are Sisco, Austin Wynns and Andrew Susac, who are all younger and more affordable than Joseph.

The Orioles could choose to go with a platoon again in 2019 that includes some combination of those last three names, which would leave Joseph as one of the odd men out. In that scenario, they may opt to non-tender the 32-year-old catcher this offseason.

Even if the Orioles choose to keep the veteran catcher around next year, there is no guarantee he will be on the next good Orioles team in several years. Joseph has established a track record as a light-hitting catcher in the majors and he lacks the upside to be a core player on a contending team.

In the next several years of the rebuild, the Orioles will hopefully find a backstop with a higher ceiling, whether that’s someone on their 40-man roster who develops into such a player, or someone they acquire through other means.