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Orioles catching situation deserves close attention as the season winds down

With an eye toward to the future, the Orioles need a strong backup catcher to pair with Adley Rutschman. But is that player currently on the roster?

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two
Orioles catcher Austin Wynns prepares to make a throw.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Remember when MLB rosters used to explode in size come September 1 every year? Teams used to go from 25 players to 40. Now it’s 26 players to 28.

The O’s have used that extra roster space to expand the capacity of the Norfolk shuttle. Between the selections, claims, options, recalls, and placements on the IL, the Birds have been quite busy recently. By my count, they’ve made 58 roster transactions in the month of September.

In one of his more recent moves, O’s general manager Mike Elias promoted Nick Ciuffo to the active roster. He joins Pedro Severino and Austin Wynns to form a catching trio for Baltimore.

There are four games left in the 2021 season and Orioles catchers have put up a .223/.287/.351 batting line as a unit, with 15 home runs and 60 RBI. Defense behind the plate has also been problematic this year and there’s plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball.

With anticipation already building for Adley Rutschman’s potential 2022 debut, it’s about time to start wondering who would fit best as the backup catcher.

Over the past several years, Severino has gotten the bulk of the playing time at catcher for the O’s. From 2019 to present, he’s got a .248/.315/.399 batting line with a .714 OPS and 91 OPS+.

As the Orioles’ most used catcher, Severino has collected 406 plate appearances over the course of 110 games this year. He’s slashing .247/.308/.386 with 11 home runs, 33 walks, 105 strikeouts, a .694 OPS and 88 OPS+. He’s been nothing if not consistent for the past three years.

In terms of pitch framing skills, Severino’s strike rate is near the bottom of the list for qualifying catchers this year at 43.9%. That number was 45.7% in 2020 and 46% in 2019.

This year, Severino is currently tied with Mike Zunino for most passed balls in the American League at 10. Severino finished 2020 tied with Gary Sanchez and Zunino for most passed balls in the AL with five.

Does that mean Sevy and Zunino have similar defensive profiles? Not so fast. In spite of that passed ball number, Zunino has been an elite pitch framer this season, as shown by a 51.7% strike rate that is fourth best in MLB.

Severino has put together a solid September at the plate, which is rare since catchers tend to wear down as the season goes on. He’s currently hitting .305 with a .354 OBP in 17 games this month. But it’s not quite enough to resurrect a season.

If his salary keeps rising through arbitration, will the Orioles keep paying for the type of production Severino provides?

Austin Wynns, on the other hand, has been with the Birds for the past four months of the season. In 138 plate appearances over that time, he’s hitting just .186/.234/.310 with four home runs, eight walks, and 31 strikeouts. While Wynns is known as more or a pitch-and-catch guy, his strike rate in the majors the past three years has ranged from 42% to 47%.

The O’s are very familiar with Wynns, having drafted him in 2013 and seen him work his way up through the system. The 30-year-old catcher has also been a frequent Norfolk Shuttle rider over the past several years, although he hasn’t come close to his career minor league batting line (.267/.338/.369) in the majors (.217/.255/.327).

The third catcher in the mix now is Nick Ciuffo. The Birds selected his contract from the Tides on September 24, and as of this morning, he’s appeared in one game. Starting behind the plate against the Rangers one day after his promotion, Ciuffo went 1-for-3 with a double and oversaw a pitching staff that allowed only two runs.

Ciuffo is a former first round (21st overall) draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. The O’s signed him as a free agent this past December. The 26-year-old catcher has a career .246/.292/.343 batting line across parts of eight minor league seasons. His brief major league exposure before this year includes 19 games with the Rays, including 16 in 2018 and three in 2019.

His MLB prospect profile from a couple of years ago explains how he was drafted as an offensive catcher. But over the course of his professional career, Ciuffo’s defense has surpassed his bat.

So does Orioles management think that one of these catchers would be a good future backup? Or maybe the club will go the free agent route and sign a new catcher this offseason. We’ll see.

Strike rate numbers provided by Baseball Savant. Other stats provided by Baseball Reference.