It’s been a long time since the Orioles could claim that they had the very best of anything. Perhaps they could have laid claim to the best reliever in baseball during Zach Britton’s dominant 2016 campaign. Even that was an extremely short-lived time on a relatively small mountaintop. During Manny Machado’s peak seasons of 2015 and 2016, the presence of Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado and others made his claim to the Best Third Baseman title tenuous at best.
Adley Rutschman’s ascension to the position of unquestioned best catcher in baseball changes all of this. Baltimore’s backstop has begun his sophomore season by continuing to show the elite on-base skills and defensive acumen that made him a rookie sensation. Adley’s also added better hitting against lefties and more power to his game, making the holes in his game nearly non-existent.
Before the season, MLB.com ranked J.T. Realmuto and Will Smith as the only catchers in the majors better than Rutschman. A slow start from Realmuto and an injury to Smith means they have seemingly ceded their positions in the ranks to Rutschman already. And at the young age of 25, it seems feasible that Adley can maintain his grip on that top spot for the better part of the next decade.
However, the Orioles’ strength at the catcher position does not stop with Adley’s dominance at the major league level. Just as Rutschman has made great steps in his development at the major league level, the Orioles’ minor league system is full of catchers showing great improvement. In fact, the depth at catcher has become so strong throughout the organization that the O’s can also lay claim to baseball’s best group of backstops.
The Triple-A level has a player in Maverick Handley who could be James McCann’s immediate successor as Adley’s primary backup. Kyle Stowers’ college teammate at Stanford, Handley has progressed steadily in the minors since being drafted in the 6th round of the 2019 draft. Though not highly rated enough to be in the Orioles’ top 30 prospects, Handley still offers a useful mix of hitting and defense to make him an ideal backup catcher. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give Handley is that he gives off strong Caleb Joseph vibes. His best offensive skill—like Adley—is his ability to get on base, but he’s still capable of good displays of power.
Maverick Handley tonight:— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) April 9, 2023
4/5, 2 2B, 3 RBI
He's hitting .438 this season with a 1.113 OPS pic.twitter.com/5FlwZW2aOt
A-ball is where the strength and depth of the Orioles’ catcher group truly shines. Last season the Orioles used a 4th-round pick on Texas catcher Silas Ardoin. The former Longhorn was seen pre-draft as a defense-first catcher, a reputation he has largely lived up to as a professional. However, Ardoin has still shown flashes of power that provide food for the imagination as to how he might continue to improve. If he can show a stronger offensive profile, Ardoin may be on a fast track to competing for playing time at the major league level.
Silas Ardoin's first home run as a pro was an oppo-shot. pic.twitter.com/C56v7MqCT5— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) April 19, 2023
The Delmarva Shorebirds have perhaps the strongest pair of catchers—relative to their level—of any team in the minors. The Shorebirds are led offensively by catcher Samuel Basallo. The 18-year-old from the Dominican Republic is the crown jewel of the Orioles’ early efforts at emphasizing international scouting. The young backstop’s physical and offensive profiles—tall, left-handed hitting and showing a tendency to power over contact— show favorable comparisons to catchers like Brian McCann. While Basallo is a long way from the majors, the amount of raw potential he oozes is perhaps only surpassed by the likes of Coby Mayo and Jackson Holliday among Orioles minor leaguers. Like Holliday, Basallo should see himself up at Aberdeen sooner rather than later.
Samuel Basallo went 2-4 with a home run, a double, 4 RBI and a walk last night, showing off some big time strength— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) April 19, 2023
On the year: .326/.356/.605/.961, 3 2B, 3 HR in 10 games.
When Basallo makes his leap up to High-A, Delmarva will still be left with an incredibly promising prospect behind the plate thanks to the emergence of Creed Willems. The 2021 8th-round pick from Aledo, TX has come into this own this year as he currently leads the Carolina League in OPS. Like Basallo, Willems offers plenty of power from the left-hand side of the plate and has shown much-improved plate discipline throughout the 2023 season.
Defensively, Willems has split time with Basallo behind the plate this year while also seeing action at first base. While it’s yet to be seen whether Willems will develop into an above-average defender behind the plate, he’s displayed a strong throwing arm from behind the dish. What will keep him climbing up the ranks—both in the minors leagues and in his reputation as a prospect—is if he can keep up the massive improvements he’s shown at the plate.
CREED WILLEMS!!!— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) April 16, 2023
4th home run of the season. Now hitting .444. pic.twitter.com/tPbPRxlZ99
With Rutschman dominating at the big league level and four minor leaguers showing the potential to end up in the big leagues, it’s hard for any other organization to match the depth the Orioles have at catcher. Clearly, Mike Elias & Co. understand the importance of building a foundation starting from behind the plate forward. With Adley unlikely to cede his everyday starting position any time in the future, it will certainly create plenty of competition for the four minor leaguers to earn game time in Baltimore. However, that will also ensure that the standard at catcher stays high in Camden Yards for years to come—that no matter whose behind the plate they follow the standard set by Adley Rutschman.
Which minor league catcher are you most excited to see become an Oriole?
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