Heading into this offseason, it was easy to identify the areas the Orioles needed to address. The seemingly never-ending search for true difference-making starting pitchers would continue. The roster needed more left-handed hitters—preferably ones that could push Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays for at-bats in the middle of the lineup. Mike Elias also needed to look to replace Rougned Odor’s veteran presence in the infield, while also adding some more offensive upside.
The front office has given at least lip service to all of those needs. Yes, the likes of Gibson, Diaz, Cordero and Frazier are a far cry from the players Birdland dreamed would join the club. Yet, those signings are at least attempts at plugging the holes in the O’s roster.
Where the front has completely failed to act so far this offseason is finding a backup to franchise centerpiece Adley Rutschman. If you look at the current 40-man roster, Rutschman is the only catcher. Not the only catcher with major league experience, the only catcher, period. Were the season starting today, you’d likely see Anthony Bemboom back in the major leagues. Not exactly an ideal scenario.
Anyone who watched a week of Orioles baseball last year after Adley’s call-up has seen firsthand the tangible change that occurred when Robinson Chirinos was behind the plate. The corners of the strike zone seemed to shrink, runners seemed more daring on the base paths and pitchers’ confidence seemed to dwindle with every pitch Chirinos failed to frame. Even if you didn’t know that Adley was a top-10 catcher in terms of Strike Rate and Chirinos was the worst in the league, no one could deny the dropoff that came every time the catcher changed from Adley to Chirinos.
For a young team on the verge of emerging as a contender in the American League, the O’s need to continue to build on their strengths if they are to clear the hurdle they stumbled over last season. Adley’s defense is clearly one of those strengths. His ability to both calm and get the best out of Baltimore’s young pitching staff was a major key to the organization’s growth on the mound in ‘22. However, that growth is stunted every time a subpar catcher has to take Adley’s place behind the dish.
At one point in the offseason, there was plenty of Birdland clamoring for the likes of Willson Contreras to join the O’s as a backup catcher/DH type. Then he signed for the Cardinals as the successor to Yadier Molina—with a hefty $17.5M/year salary to boot. The free agent catcher market has also seen Christian Vazquez get three years/$30M from Minnesota, with Mike Zunino, Austin Hedges and Luke Maile getting one-year deals in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati respectively. William Contreras also found a new home in Milwaukee as part of the blockbuster trade that brought Gold Glove catcher Sean Murphy to Atlanta. The point of all this is to say that the catcher market continues to dry up while the Baltimore front office sits on its hands.
The silver lining to all this activity is that the majority of the names to come off of the board so far do not fit the profile of what the Orioles really need. Both Contreras brothers and Maile are subpar pitch framers and average overall defenders. Hedges is a slightly better framer and overall better defender, but still a notch below Rutschman’s standards. Vazquez was never likely to sign as a backup and is not enough of a hitter to fill the role fans had envisioned for Willson Contreras.
Zunino is perhaps the biggest miss for the O’s and their needs. The Orioles front office would have been well-versed in the defensive prowess of the former No. 3 overall pick, a long-time member of the rival Tampa Bay Rays. Additionally, Zunino could have offered an upgrade platooning against lefties. Adley did plenty of things well in his rookie season, but hitting lefties was not one of them. Zunino’s .436 slugging percentage against lefties would offer a marked boost over what Adley posted last season. That being said, Zunino is coming off a season where he only played 36 games due to a left shoulder injury, and may have been seen as damaged goods.
Among the remaining available free agents, there are some good fits, but no truly great fits. Gary Sanchez and Roberto Pérez have even bigger problems when it comes to addressing the Orioles' needs. While Sanchez put up solid framing numbers last season in Minnesota, he still sports a merited reputation for being a suspect defender overall. Combine that with offensive numbers that have cratered since a 34-HR season in 2019 and he represents only a slight improvement on Chirinos. Pérez is a two-time Gold Glove winner, but has only played 65 games over the last two seasons and offers perhaps even less than Chirinos offensively.
In reality, the best option to fill the Orioles’ backup catcher need would probably be found on the trade market. Former Orioles prospect Jonah Heim and now Braves backup Travis d’Arnaud have both shown over the last several seasons to be elite pitch framers and overall defensive stalwarts. D’Arnaud was also at the top of the leaderboards last year when it came to catchers hitting off lefties. While Heim is not as elite of a lefty masher as d’Arnaud, his OPS is still almost 200 points higher against southpaws. With the acquisition of Murphy in Atlanta and the presence of highly-regard prospect Sam Huff in Arlington, it’s feasible that one of these two could be pried from their current club. The price certainly wouldn’t be cheap though—and may ultimately prove preventative for Elias & Co.
The worst option for the front office, though, is to continue to stand still on filling this important position. The talent in the minor leagues when it comes to pitchers and other position players may be deep enough that the higher-ups felt like they could shop from the bargain bin when it came to filling other needs. However, there is no Grayson Rodriguez, Colton Cowser or Connor Norby waiting in the wings when it comes to the backup catcher spot. Adley may be a Captain-America-Esque superhero in the eyes of Orioles fans, but catcher cannot continue to be a one-hero show. A good backup catcher could be the difference between a couple of series won and lost next season—and thus the Orioles’ chance at the playoffs. So, Mike Elias, let’s not miss out while there are still good options available.