As a unit, Orioles catchers are slashing a paltry .210/.288/.267 at the plate with two home runs, 11 RBI, and a .554 OPS in 2021. That’s rough. And their struggles behind the plate have been well documented, too.
Since starting catcher Pedro Severino came to Baltimore, he’s put up poor defensive numbers by FanGraphs’ Catcher Defense stat, with marks of -2.0 in 2019, -1.0 in 2020, and -1.9 so far in 2021. The former Washington National came to town with a reputation as a defense-oriented catcher, but that profile has yet to materialize. So far this year, Severino has allowed five passed balls in 38 games started and has only thrown out 13% of base stealers.
Severino’s bat has been underwhelming, too. Offensively this year, his .629 OPS and 77 OPS+ are backed by a .239/.312/.317 triple-slash line over the course of 142 at-bats.
The Birds did make a move at the tail end of May when they optioned struggling backup catcher Chance Sisco to Triple-A and selected the contract of Austin Wynns. But that can’t be viewed as more than a short-term flier, considering that the 30-year-old Wynns has only received sporadic playing time at the major league level with the O’s in recent years, and he didn’t even merit a call-up during last year’s Covid-shortened season.
In limited action, Wynns’ defense hasn’t been as bad as Severino's, but he also hasn’t registered a Catcher Defense mark above 0.2 at any point in his major league career.
It’s a forgone conclusion that general manager Mike Elias will resist the temptation to promote Adley Rutschman to the majors this year. Despite the fact that the young catcher is tearing it up at Double-A Bowie right now — in 108 at-bats he’s got eight home runs, 22 RBI, and a .296/.442/.565 batting line — there’s just no reason to start his arbitration clock this season with the O’s playing as poorly as their record shows.
The Orioles have some catchers at Norfolk that are enjoying varying degrees of success so far in 2021. Additionally, none are currently on Baltimore’s 40-man roster and would therefore require a corresponding move to be promoted. But if the Orioles’ brass gets fed up with watching their current catchers, we could see one or more of these guys at the big league level at some point this season.
Looking at Norfolk’s most experienced catching option, 31-year-old Taylor Davis has 20 games of major league experience, all of which came with the Chicago Cubs between 2017 and 2019. In very limited MLB action, his defensive fWAR maxed out at 0.1 in 2017, and he owns a career .222/.256/.333 slash line at the plate in the bigs.
Davis is hitting .294/.385/.382 for the Tides at the moment. But he’s started only two games at catcher this year at Norfolk. So he’s unlikely to receive considerable playing time behind the plate with the O’s.
Another Norfolk catcher with major league experience, 26-year-old Nick Ciuffo, has yet to play a game for the Tides this year while recovering from a fractured hand. He’s expected to return in mid-June. Ciuffo was a 2013 first round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays, so he’s got the pedigree. Still, in 50 major league plate appearances with the Rays from 2018-2019, Ciuffo hit just .186/.250/.279. His career minor league batting numbers aren’t much better at .239/.312/.317.
Well, it looks like it really is Rutschman or bust for the O’s. Except for one other young catcher at Triple-A.
That person is Brett Cumberland, who may not hit for a high batting average but happens to be an on-base machine. It’s proven not only by his numbers this year — 14 walks in 118 plate appearances with a .269 average, which is good for a .424 OBP — but in his career minor league OBP of .380. Over the course of his five-year minor league career, Cumberland has a .245 batting average and a .409 SLG.
The 25-year-old switch-hitting catcher came to the Orioles from the Atlanta Braves as part of the Kevin Gausman trade back in 2018. Across three minor league levels in 2019, Cumberland slashed .257/.404/.415, and it might soon be time to see what he can do at the next level.
While the prevailing notion might be a total lack of interest in who is catching until Rutschman surfaces in the majors, it’s still hard to watch sloppy defense and poor at-bats so frequently from Orioles backstops. As the season drags on, maybe someone high up will get fed up enough to enact more change. Are any of the aforementioned Triple-A guys the short-term answer? Probably not. But what does the team have to lose by giving one of them a little playing time?