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Orioles' depth behind injured starter Matt Wieters has mostly defense-first catchers

Orioles catchers listen to bench coach John Russell (in black) during the first official day of spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Feb. 19, 2016.
Orioles catchers listen to bench coach John Russell (in black) during the first official day of spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Feb. 19, 2016. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

When Orioles catcher Matt Wieters went out nearly two years ago with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, the organization found it had a more than capable backup in Caleb Joseph.

Wieters left Saturday's game after tweaking that same right elbow on a throw to second base. And though the severity and extent of the injury is unclear, it's an occasion to examine what the organization has in reserve behind Wieters should he be forced out of the lineup for an extended period.

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Joseph, who is scheduled to ride to Fort Myers and catch for the first time since Wednesday after missing a few days with flu-like symptoms, is the most obvious candidate to step in for Wieters.

In 82 games in Wieters' stead in 2014, Joseph hit .207/.264/.354 with nine home runs, but elevated the pitching staff for what proved to be a deep playoff run. Joseph improved a bit at the plate in 2015, slashing at .234/.299/.394 with 11 home runs in 100 games. It's safe to say Joseph would slide in as the starting catcher were the team to be without Wieters for long.

Behind him, there's only one catcher on the 40-man roster: Francisco Pena. Pena, 26, was a 2014 Pacific Coast League All-Star with the Kansas City Royals' affiliate in Omaha, and was sent to the Orioles for cash in December.

Pena appeared in nine major league games over the past two seasons with the Royals, and is a career .238/.288/.378 hitter in the minors, averaging 8.9 home runs per season. Because he's already on the 40-man roster, Pena would be an easy candidate to keep around for a while, and he has an option, so the organization wouldn't risk losing him by sending him down at the end of any possible Wieters absence.

Wieters' replacement in Saturday's game, Audry Perez, could be a dark-horse candidate as well. Manager Buck Showalter singled him out after the game as having played well, and frequently relayed positive reports about Perez's defense to the media last season.

The former St. Louis Cardinals prospect joined the Orioles in 2015 after making appearances in the majors in 2013 and 2014 with St. Louis. He hit .243/.279/.303 in 78 games with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides last season.

Perez, though he's not a homegrown player like Joseph, would fit a similar bill as the one Joseph did in providing a reliable defensive catcher for the pitching staff, with any offensive production a bonus.

Showalter also said there were a few minor league catchers he wanted to bring over to watch in games now that two highly touted catching prospects who received invitations to big league camp, Chance Sisco and Jonah Heim, have been returned to minor league camp.

Sisco and Heim are promising, but too far away from the majors at this time. Some of the catchers who have been in minor league camp and could be summoned for games include Mikey O'Brien, Alex Murphy and Austin Wynns, among others.

Short term, with so many players at their disposal, the Orioles should be able to weather the Grapefruit League campaign if Wieters needs to rest his tender elbow. But Showalter wasn't ready to give any long-term assessments of the position Saturday evening.

"If I had to answer that question now, we all have preliminary thoughts on it," Showalter said. "I thought Audry was pretty good today. That's something they've said all along. But I'm going to stay positive where Matt's concerned. I'm not going there yet. We'll see what the next few days brings. I'm curious to see how he feels the day after tomorrow, not really tomorrow."

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