The Orioles – specifically manager Buck Showalter – first brought to light their desire to improve the organization’s catching depth last winter. The Orioles went to camp in 2013 with a relatively large cast of AAA/AA catchers – Luis Martinez, Luis Exposito, Chris Robinson, Brian Ward, Alan de San Miguel, and Caleb Joseph among them. However, by the end of April it became clear that the organization did not view any of that particular lot as ready to help the major league team. When backup catcher Taylor Teagarden suffered an injury in late April, the Orioles traded for Chris Snyder from the Angels rather than go with the available internal options
Since then, the Orioles catching depth situation has improved at least somewhat. Steve Clevenger was acquired last July and Johnny Monell came on board this November, providing the Orioles with two solid major league ready backstops. Taylor Teagarden – who had served as backup catcher the prior two seasons – elected free agency and as of now, is still unsigned. Michael Ohlman had a breakout season with the bat, cementing his status as a top Orioles prospect. All in all, with Clevenger and Morell, the Orioles appear to be in a slightly better position to weather an injury to Matt Wieters than they were last season.
Overall, the Orioles have three 28-year old catchers at the AAA and major league level, each of whom carries obvious offensive upside. From a major league talent perspective, the organization is in pretty good shape. The depth drops off a little from there and their best catching prospect – Chance Sisco – is likely four or more seasons away from even being considered major league ready.
Major League Starter
Matt Wieters (Bats: S; Throws: R; Age 28)
There is a false perception that Matt Wieters has been a declining offensive player for the past several seasons. The reality is that there is not a material difference between his 2011 and 2012 offensive performances. In both seasons his offensive output was comfortably above average. It is incredibly premature – if not simply inaccurate – to state that Wieters is in decline. He is simply coming off a down season in which the reasons for the drop in production are rather clear.
Matt’s power numbers have been steady (.188, .186, and .182 ISO from 2011 – 2013). His walk rate was down last season (7.4% compared to a career rate of 8.7%) accounting for some of the production drop. Most of the decline in 2013 can be traced to Wieter’s batting average on balls in play (BAbip). His .247 BAbip in 2013 is well below his career BAbip of .283. When Wieters put the ball in play last season, he hit line drives at a rate consistent with his career rate, hit significantly fewer groundballs (which theoretically would be a good thing for a slow player like Matt), and hit more fly balls. Besides from pure luck, the only other obvious driver for the dip in BAbip is that a significantly larger amount of his fly balls in 2013 failed to leave the infield (11.1 in-field fly ball % (IFFB %) in 2013 versus 8.1 IFFB % for his career). It seems reasonable to suggest that if – everything else being equal – Matt’s IFFB % regresses back to career norms and he receives a little more luck on balls in play, that his numbers will rather easily bounce back to the very-acceptable 2011 – 2012 levels.
All of that makes Matt one of the more obvious bounce back candidates on the club. Such a recovery will provide a nice boost to the middle or bottom of the Birds’ lineup, while at the same time, making an already difficult decision concerning his future in Baltimore (Wieters will be a free agent after the 2015 season) an even more difficult decision next winter.
Major League Backup
Steve Clevenger (Bats: L; Throws: R; Age: 28)
Baltimore native Steve Clevenger joined the Orioles last July as a minor part of the deal that sent Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop to Chicago for Scott Feldman. That is not to suggest he was an altogether insignificant part of the deal. The Orioles tabbed him as a possible backup catcher and kept him on the 40-man roster late in the season at the expense of longtime Showalter favorite, Taylor Teagarden. Clevenger enters Spring Training as the odds-on favorite to win the backup catcher job.
The Mount St. Joe graduate has a reputation of being a solid defender. He also has shown some offensive ability in the minor leagues, with a career .311/.373/.428 slash line over 8 seasons. That success has not quite translated to the majors in limited opportunities, but then again any offensive output a team can get from its backup catching is usually considered to icing on the cake.
Johnny Monell (Bats: L; Throws: R; Age: 28)
Monell – acquired from San Francisco in November for cash considerations – dipped his toes into the major league waters for the first time in 2013 as a September call up with the Giants. His minor league slash line of .267/.351/.456 indicates that this bat might be ready to sink or swim versus major league pitching. The quality of his defense remains to be seen – there are mixed scouting reports out there – but he appears to have a shot at sticking behind the plate in the majors.
With at least on minor league option remaining, Monell is likely ticketed for AAA Norfolk. However, his bat appears to be major league ready and Monell’s blend of patience and power could land him an audition in Baltimore sometime during the 2014 season.
Michael Ohlman (Bats: R; Throws: R; Age: 23)
The 2009 11th round draft pick broke out with the bat in a big way last season playing for Frederick in the Carolina League. In 424 plate appearances, Ohlman posted a line of .313/.410/.524 and cemented himself as one of the organization’s better position prospects. He certainly hit well enough to start next season in AA, where a strong campaign would further cement his spot in the organization.
The question for Ohlman is if he can stick behind the plate. Ohlman served as Frederick’s designated hitter more than he their catcher last season and there are signs that his future might be more as a DH. In any event, the Orioles would be best served using him at catcher next season at Bowie, as he can always be moved to DH further down the line. Over the past two seasons, Ohlman has given plenty of reasons to believe in his bat. His defensive production next season might ultimately determine whether he is viewed as a future major league catcher or not.
Lower Level Prospect
Chance Sisco (Bats: L; Throws: R; Age: 19)
The Orioles used their second round pick in the 2013 amateur player draft on Sisco. The California high school player was selected as a catcher, despite having just made the transition there (from shortstop) prior to his senior season. Early reports indicate that Sisco is impressive defensively considering he is a virtual newcomer to the position. At least so far, there is optimism that in time the 19 year old will develop into a good defensive backstop.
Sisco, however, was selected largely for his offensive potential. Some of this potential was on display last season in the Gulf Coast League where Chance reached base in 47.5% of his trips to the plate. The organization is very high on his potential, even if he is years away from major league consideration. Sisco could begin the season in Delmarva, which would be somewhat aggressive but not ridiculously so.