For the second time this season, the Orioles have swapped catchers with the Norfolk Tides. This move is a little more exciting than the promotion of Andrew Susac a few weeks prior because it involves one of the more highly-regarded prospects in the O’s farm system making his way to Baltimore. It will now be Austin Wynns’ turn to play second fiddle to Chance Sisco behind the plate.
Wynns is currently ranked as Baltimore’s 22nd-best prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. But he’s not your typical “prospect”. Wynns is already 27 years old. He’s been in the O’s system since being drafted as a senior out of Fresno State University in the 10th round of the 2013 draft. Since then, he has, slowly but surely, worked his way through the minors, which has included parts of three seasons in High-A Frederick and two healthy stays in Double-A Bowie.
If you pay attention to the Orioles minor league teams, then Wynns’ reputation proceeds him. According to his Pipeline scouting report, Wynns is “a strong defender behind the plate with above-average arm strength and advanced catch-and-throw skills.”
In his minor league career, Wynns threw out 128 of a possible 407 base-stealers, which is a 31.4 percent throw-out rate. This season in Norfolk he is only 5-for-27 (18.5 percent). Of course, numbers on a stat sheet don’t tell the whole story. Scouts are paid for their analysis of these guys. If they say he’s a good catch-and-throw guy, then I take their word for it.
Based on those very same stat sheets, Wynns seems to be a decent enough hitter. Across 439 minor league games, the catcher slashed .268/.335/.372 with 24 home runs. His best season was just last year with the Baysox in which he hit .281/.377/.419 with 10 dongs and 19 doubles while drawing 52 bases on balls and striking out just 64 times. For a defense-first option, those are perfectly fine numbers with the stick.
If you believe in his Triple-A performance this year, Wynns will transition perfectly into the platoon Buck Showalter has enacted at the catcher position in Baltimore. Wynns has crushed left-handed pitching this season to the tune of a .439/.457/.659 batting line with two home runs and three doubles in 41 at-bats. Meanwhile, he is hitting .147/.227/.250 against righties in 68 at-bats at Norfolk this year
However, that is a pretty darn small sample size, and it is an extreme tendency that he had not shown prior to 2018. Last year in Bowie, Wynns hit .271/.379/.449 against lefties and .286/.360/.405 against righties. In 2016, he only batted .150 against lefties in Bowie (20 ABs), but hit .377 against them in Frederick (61 ABs). You get the idea. It’s not clear that Wynns is truely a significantly better matchup against left-handed pitching, but that is almost certainly how he will be utilized as an Oriole this season.
Wynns promotion shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He appeared in 14 games down in Florida this spring and had been sent to a few offseason leagues in the last couple of years. The Orioles wanted to get him looks against better competition in an effort to accelerate his course to the big leagues.
Should Wynns succeed, it will be an ironic outcome, of sorts, for Caleb Joseph, who remains down in Triple-A Norfolk. Wynns had a very Joseph-like path to Baltimore. Joseph spent over six season in the Orioles farm system before making his MLB debut as a 27-year-old in 2014. The now 31-year-old had carved out a nice role with the O’s over the past couple of seasons, but his struggles this year have proved to be too much to overcome, and he may now be replaced permanently by a guy with a similar story.
Joseph had slumped to a .182/.203/.325 batting line with one home run and three RBI in 77 at-bats despite getting pretty regular playing time. Uncharacteristically, Joseph’s defense behind the plate had slipped as well. His pitch framing ability dramatically worsened and he was throwing out just 21 percent of base runners.
As the likely back-up or right-handed side of a platoon with Sisco, Wynns will need to show that he can produce when only starting once, maybe twice, per week; something his predecessor never has. In 2016, Joseph notoriously went an entire season (49 games, 132 at-bats) without an RBI as Matt Wieters’ backup. He was much better in 2017 (.256/.287/.413, eight home runs, 28 RBI) as the number two behind Welington Castillo, but that was more of a 50/50 split as Castillo had a few injury concerns during the year.
The catcher position in Norfolk has bounced around between Susac, Joseph and Wynns this season. That lineup juggling has given Wynns experience as a part-timer, moving in and otu of the everyday order. Even still, he has been able to put up decent numbers with the bat. If he can continue doing so at the major league level, it will be a welcome improvement over the other two that have tried.
Between Joseph and Susac, the O’s have gotten a total of -0.5 WAR. That’s not to say that failing to have a great backup catcher has been this team’s big problem, but if internal improvements can be made then they should be. Maybe Wynns will be better. Maybe he won’t. But he had gotten to the point where there wasn’t much more that he could reasonably be expected to achieve in the minors.