For more than a few reasons, the Orioles’ agreement, pending a physical, with free-agent catcher Welington Castillo jolted the team’s offseason to life. In Castillo, the Orioles signed a player they believe to be the best catcher available on an affordable contract. And they don’t sacrifice a draft pick to get him.
Now, once the ever-thorough Orioles' physical checks out and Castillo takes the final spot on their 40-man roster, the fun part starts. How will they use him? And how will it impact everyone around him?
Over the past four seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and most recently the Arizona Diamondbacks, Castillo was a dependable catcher who averaged 112 games per season — roughly five games per week over the course of a baseball season.
In his prime, the man he’s replacing — Matt Wieters — would play upwards of 140 games per season, with many of those behind the plate. In 2016, Wieters started 111 games behind the plate, so the workload would be in line with what he’s used to.
That said, it’s unlikely that it will be, at least behind the plate. In catcher Caleb Joseph, the Orioles have a player who is at once a known commodity and in another sense a complete unknown.
Over his first two years in the majors, Joseph was worth 3.4 wins above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball Reference and 2.2 WAR according to FanGraphs. He batted .223 with a .660 OPS and 20 home runs in 2014 and 2015 combined. Then he battled injury and inconsistent playing time to be worth minus-1.0 WAR while batting .174 without an RBI in 2016.
Given the great strides Joseph has made defensively over the course of his career, he’s still an asset behind the plate. And if he can be closer to the hitter he was from 2014 to 2015, he’ll be quite a complement to Castillo.
There’s also this interesting point of view from FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan, who posits that Joseph’s defensive value makes him an overall more valuable player than Castillo, who is more limited defensively.
If that’s the case, there’s a solution that the Orioles could work through. Part of Joseph’s problem last year was playing once a week behind Wieters. A more even workload with Castillo could change that.
How is that accomplished? Well, Orioles manager Buck Showalter’s inclination toward the familiar should contribute to that early, but Castillo’s primary asset — his bat — could get into the lineup as a designated hitter.
The Orioles’ business isn’t done this offseason, and they could move to add another slugger or bring back Mark Trumbo But there’s a use for Castillo outside of his primary catching role if the Orioles’ major moves are finished.
Castillo, a right-handed hitter, has been a menace to left-handed pitching over his entire career, as he has posted a 128 OPS+ with a .287/.354/.485 line off them. The Orioles already have Trey Mancini available to be their designated hitter, and he hit all three of his major league home runs off lefties last year. He has had more neutral splits in the minors than Castillo has posted in the majors, but neither requires a strict platoon. Joseph, meanwhile, has historically hit right-handed pitchers slightly better than lefties.
However it’s split up, as it stands now, the Orioles could get some extra value out of Castillo as their designated hitter, all while letting Joseph’s defensive value boost them at the same time.
And about that defense…
As a minor aside, it turns out executive vice president Dan Duquette was running a little misdirection when he discussed the defensive values of catchers and how the market was valuing the best pitch framers.
Castillo and Wieters were the best offensive catchers on the market. But Castillo still gets less guaranteed money on his one-year deal with a player option that could max out at $13 million, than Jason Castro (three years, $24.5 million) got from the Minnesota Twins for his defensive skills.
In Castillo, it’s clear the offensive value overrides everything else. He’s not a butcher behind the plate, but he has never been regarded as a defensive catcher. And that shouldn’t really be surprising, given some of the players the Orioles have brought in over the past few years.
From big names such as Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo to lesser signings such as Hyun Soo Kim, the front office mantra has recently been that offense trumps defense. Manager Buck Showalter, who has to fill out the lineup card and likes to make it the best defensive one possible, is the one who has to make it work.
All this does is raise the question of how large the desired upgrade in outfield defense will be once the Orioles address that problem. There’s still at least one move to be made there, and Rule 5 picks Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander might not move the needle on that front very much. If the emphasis on defense is regarded the way it was for the catcher position, it will be interesting to see what an upgrade looks like come spring training.