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Without improved defense, Chance Sisco’s power surge doesn’t mean much

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Three home runs in six at-bats have O’s fans remembering Chance Sisco’s top prospect status. But his defensive development will be key.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles-Media Day Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is all about hope and optimism, and Orioles fans would be wise to take advantage of that where we can prior to what will likely be a frustrating season. One of the best things we could hope for at this point in the O’s rebuild is a former top prospect who struggled last season break out early in Grapefruit League action. Chance Sisco is providing that for us.

The 2013 second round pick has collected four hits, three that have left the ballpark, in six at bats at this early stage of the spring training schedule. Yes, we all know this is a small sample size. We know he impressed offensively last spring training. But Sisco’s home run barrage has given O’s fans who are starved for some good news a shot in the arm.

The Orioles will get back to a competitive level a lot sooner if the players currently in the system, especially current or former top prospects, turn into productive big leaguers. While Sisco’s status took a beating after his .181/.288/.269 slash line in 184 plate appearances last season, scouts were enamored with him throughout the minor leagues. He was the O’s top prospect after the 2016 season and was a Baseball America Top 100 prospect last year.

We heard stories all offseason and Sisco needing to get his confidence back, and the early returns on that front are good thus far. Brandon Hyde, Jimmy Yacabonis, and Austin Wynns all commented on Sisco being loose and confident in Sarasota. In the same article, The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli says that Sisco is “carrying a stronger frame from his offseason training in Sarasota.” Perhaps these two factors have played a role in half of the young catcher’s at-bats resulting in home runs so far.

While we should be encouraged by this initial success, the truth is that we always knew Sisco’s bat would be the skill that would get him to the major leagues. His status in prospect rankings was a product of his offense. This is not to say that his offensive game doesn’t come without concerns. In parts of six minor league seasons, he has hit only 28 home runs. He never hit more than ten in a season. His career minor league slugging percentage is .420 (right around the MLB average over the past several seasons). This makes his February power surge bizarre and (sorry, optimistic O’s fans) likely unsustainable.

Sisco made up for that low slugging percentage by getting on base 38% of the time in his minor league career. He demonstrated the ability to work a walk (211 in his minor league career) and supplements that with an impressive .306 career batting average in the minors. There is certainly a place in the MLB for him if those on-base skills translate despite his limited power. The fact that his strikeout rate in Baltimore last season was 35% does not bode well for his prospects as a contact-reliant hitter, but we can easily write that off as a young player struggling with confidence while getting his feet wet in the majors.

The concern throughout Sisco’s professional career has been his defense. Even when rating him as the organization’s top prospect, MLB.com said that the best-case scenario projection is for his defense to be “average” while citing his “fringy arm and catch-and-throw skills.” He started catching during his senior year in high school, so he has faced a steep learning curve. Advanced stats have backed up what scouts have seen. To this point in his very brief major league career, Fangraphs rates his defensive runs saved as negative. Jon Shepherd at Camden Depot wrote last year that Sisco projects as costing his club 15 runs defensively over the course of 125 games.

This disparity between Sisco’s offense and defense could give us a closer look at the priorities of Hyde and the new front office. Hyde has said repeatedly that he wants to emphasize the importance of defense, and what position is more important from a defensive standpoint than catcher? Game-calling and receiving skills will be essential for a pitching staff that will feature two veteran starters and a lot of inexperience. The new staff may decide that Sisco needs to further hone his craft behind the plate in Norfolk.

On the other hand, Sisco is a former top prospect who has shown a tremendous ability to get on base, a skill desperately needed by this offense. If he has another great spring training offensively, would Hyde trade that offense for the sub-par (but hopefully improving) defense? This will be one of the more interesting storylines to follow in the month of March.

As a fan, I want to see as many glimpses of a bright future as possible in 2019. Despite his 2018 struggles, poor defense, and lack of power, Chance Sisco brings some interesting offensive skills to the table. Many scouts think they’ll play at the major league level and I’m excited to see that. It would certainly give Birdland more of a reason to show up to Camden Yards than somebody like Carlos Perez or Jesus Sucre handling the catching duties.

But it is important to remember that 2019 is a complete building season. Journeyman catchers getting playing time isn’t a big deal if it allows a prospect to get more necessary seasoning in the minor leagues. And if last season’s defensive performance is any indication, that is what Sisco needs at this point.

Even if Sisco continues homering in every other at-bat, he should only make the Opening Day roster if management deems his defense is drastically improved. He needs to at least be adequate behind the dish to be a viable catching option in the future, and 2019 is the perfect time to let him continue to get that if needed. Let’s hope the dingers keep coming, but his development is all about defense.

What plan do you want to see the Orioles follow regarding Chance Sisco?