SARASOTA, Fla. – Since the Orioles' season ended suddenly in that ugly walkoff loss in Toronto in the American League wild card game in October, this is the day that coaches, players and fans have been looking toward on their calendars. Today's report day for pitchers and catchers is the unofficial beginning of spring training, and with it comes the anticipation of a new season.
Over the past week, plenty has happened regarding the club's catchers. On Wednesday, it became official – in somewhat of a surprise – that new starting catcher Welington Castillo will play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, and he could miss up to 18 days of a spring in which he will have to get accustomed to a new team and a new staff.
On Friday, catcher Francisco Pena, who was to battle Caleb Joseph for the backup job, was surprisingly designated for assignment. And that peculiar move led to speculation that the team could forge a reunion with former starting catcher, Matt Wieters, who is still unsigned as spring training opens.
Wieters' return is still highly unlikely. There's not much space for him either behind the plate or in the designated hitter spot. And while Wieters will likely have to either wait for a spring training injury or settle for a club-friendly deal, that potential discount hasn't reached the Orioles' comfort zone enough to find a spot for Wieters. But as I've written often, until Wieters lands with another team, however unlikely a reunion is, it's still possible. But the Orioles' decision to designate Pena had little to do with Wieters.
At this point in the offseason, most teams have their catching situations settled. Because of the importance of the position, it's not one that clubs often wait to fill, which is why it's remarkable that Wieters is still out there.
But up until last week, it seemed like Pena had a reasonable chance to make the Orioles' Opening Day roster as Castillo's backup because he was out of minor league options. Keeping Pena on the 25-man roster and sending Joseph to Triple-A Norfolk would allow them to keep both in the organization.
But because many teams have their catchers in tow, the Orioles left Pena available through the waiver claim process. Instead of facing a difficult late spring training decision in choosing between Pena and Joseph, they decided making him expendable now was better than the possibility of doing it in late March. And if Pena clears, he would have to accept an outright assignment to the minor leagues, meaning he can be easily sent to the minors to open the season.
Even if the Orioles lose Pena on waivers – which is possible – they believe that have capable depth behind Castillo and Joseph. Audry Perez, who will play at Triple-A Norfolk, is well regarded defensively and some believe he's a better catcher than Pena. And top prospect Chance Sisco is waiting in the wings as the heir apparent once he gets more seasoning behind the plate. Even 26-year-old Austin Wynns, who played at three different levels last year, offers depth even though he injured his ankle playing in winter ball this offseason.
Having said all that, the Orioles could still sign another catcher to add more depth if they lose Pena.
Castillo could be away from the club from March 6-24 if the Dominican Republic defends its WBC title in the championship game, meaning he will miss valuable time getting accustomed to his new team. That opens an opportunity for the Orioles to get a closer look at Sisco behind the plate to assess how far away he is, but it also is costing Castillo valuable time.
He won't be the only one who could potentially miss extended time by participating in the WBC. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop – a Curacao native who will play for the Netherlands – will have just 11 days of full-squad workouts before he departs on Feb. 28 to play the pool play round in South Korea. Center fielder Adam Jones and right-hander Mychal Givens, who will play for the USA, as well as third baseman Manny Machado, another Dominican representative, could also miss from March 6-24 depending on how far their teams advance. And both the USA and Dominican Republic are expected to go far.
Even though the Orioles' first full-squad workout isn't until Friday, it will be interesting to see how many of those players get an early start to spring training in Sarasota.
The Orioles won't only miss players because of the WBC. Advance scouting coordinator Ben Werthan will work with Team Israel, which will also play in South Korea. And bullpen catcher Jett Ruiz is expected to accompany Jones with Team USA.