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Which free agent catching options could keep the spot warm for Adley Rutschman?

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The Orioles have no catchers on their 40-man roster at the moment, and they could use more pitch framing skills.

College World Series - Arkansas v Oregon State - Game Three
Former Oregon catcher and current Orioles prospect Adley Rutschman walks off the field on June 28, 2018.
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

If you look at the Orioles’ 40-man roster for clues about their offseason shopping list, you’ll notice there are currently zero catchers listed. That’s going to have to change before spring training.

This past season, Orioles catchers hit a cumulative .223/.288/.348 with a .635 OPS. Pedro Severino and Austin Wynns accounted for the vast majority of those numbers behind the plate, as they combined to appear in 141 of 162 games in 2021. Drew Bonifant recently recapped this past season for those two catchers, which you can read here.

Between late October and early November, the O’s removed catchers Severino, Wynns, and Nick Ciuffo from the 40-man roster and outrighted them to Norfolk. Subsequently, all three elected free agency. So who’s going to catch?

As far as Adley Rutschman goes, it’s highly unlikely he’s starting the 2022 season with the big league club. Not unless MLB changes the collective bargaining agreement to amend service time and Super Two status, the latter of which is “a designation that allows a select group of players to become eligible for arbitration before reaching three years of service time”, according to MLB.com.

That means the Orioles will need someone to catch full time for at least the first month or so of next season. Or maybe they’ll split the duties between a couple catchers. Then once the Super Two deadline is established next year and we’re past it, Rutschman will likely be promoted and take the starting job from whoever is playing backstop for the O’s at that time.

No one on the Orioles pitching staff last year — starting rotation or bullpen — was immune to prolonged struggle. So more help on the catcher’s side is required. With the Orioles’ forward thinking front office, pitch framing would seem to be a likely point of emphasis.

In recent years, a large part of a catcher’s defensive value has hinged on their pitch framing ability. For those unfamiliar with pitch framing, strike rate is a key metric. It’s defined as the “percentage of non-swings on the edges of the zone converted into called strikes,” per MLB.com’s Glossary of Terms, and has to do with catcher positioning, ball receiving skills, stillness, and presentation for the umpire.

If the club wants to maximize the potential of their young pitching staff, they would do well to grab a catcher well-versed in pitch framing — which they have not had in the recent past. Severino had a 43.7% strike rate last season, and with a 42.9% mark in that department, Wynns wasn’t far behind.

Approaching the offseason free agent catching options from this angle, there are a few in particular that stand out. Statcast’s 2021 pitch-framing leaderboard (MLB catcher’s with a minimum 1,000 pitches called), according to strike rate, includes 32-year-old Sandy Leon with the 6th best mark at 50.3%. In 2020, Leon put up a 49.9% strike rate.

While he isn’t known for his bat, the former Marlin is very familiar with the AL East, having played for the Red Sox from 2015-2019. During that time he had an underwhelming OPS+ of 64. He’s also got a career batting line of .212/.277/.319. But with an extensive knowledge of the personnel in the Orioles’ division, he could help a lot with pitcher preparation and game planning.

Another solid pitch framer is 34-year-old Manny Pina, who had the 20th best strike rate last year at 49%, per Statcast. He’s spent the last handful of years in the National League with the Brewers, so he wouldn’t be familiar with the AL East like Leon. But Pina has had consistently strong strike rate numbers (including 54% in 2020). Although he hit below .200 last season over the course of 75 games, his career batting numbers (.245/.314/.413 slash line) indicate he’s better than that.

A former Indians backstop, Roberto Perez, shined with a 48.5% strike rate this past season and a 51.2% mark two years ago. At 32 years old, Perez has played his entire career with the Indians and carries a .206/.297/.360 slash line over his eight year in the bigs.

The last free agent catcher on this list of decent pitch framers is Andrew Knapp. He’s played for the Phillies since 2017, and while his strike rate was just 45% two years ago, it jumped to 48.2% this past season. In his career, Knapp only has a .636 OPS and 71 OPS+, but if the O’s think he can continue to improve his pitch framing numbers, the 29-year-old could make sense as a short-term starting catcher and long-term backup to Rutschman.

So how much does GM Mike Elias want to spend on a catcher who will most likely end up as Rutschman’s backup? Who knows. But if the team wants a solid veteran presence that specializes in defense and getting strikes called for his pitchers, then a free agent like one of the above could work well. Besides, the O’s have to add more catching depth somehow.