Welington Castillo declines 2018 player option, becomes free agent

Catcher Welington Castillo has declined his player option to remain with the Orioles in 2018, officially becoming a free agent.

Castillo had until 5 p.m. Monday to decide whether to exercise a $7 million player option for next season at the back end of a two-year, $13 million deal he signed with the Orioles last offseason.

Considering the 30-year-old Castillo enjoyed one of the best all-around seasons of his major league career, the move was expected. The Orioles are free to negotiate a new deal with Castillo — but as of 5 p.m. Monday he can sign with any other club. Castillo’s 2.1 WAR (wins above replacement) this season ranked the second-highest among free-agent catchers, trailing only Alex Avila (2.7) of the Cubs.

Castillo recorded a .282/.323/.490 hitting line while hitting a career-high 20 homers and driving in 53 runs on the season as he replaced longtime starter Matt Wieters. Despite playing in just 96 games last season because of two stints on the disabled list, Castillo was one of just four major league catchers to record at least 20 homers and post an OPS of .800 or higher.

Orioles vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said in a text message that it was “no surprise” that Castillo declined his option and became a free agent, saying that Castillo “did a nice job for the Orioles in 2017 and had one of his best offensive years and threw out almost half of the basestealers.”

Though he came to the Orioles with the reputation of being more of an offensive player than for his skills behind the plate, Castillo was adept in controlling the running game. He threw out 24 of 49 runners attempting to steal, and his 49.0 percent throwout rate led the majors. But his pitchers’ ERA when he was behind the plate was 5.60, which ranked 29th among major league catchers with at least 65 starts.

“The Orioles appreciate Castillo’s good work and wish him well in the future,” Duquette added.

The Orioles are likely to staff the position next year internally with top catching prospect Chance Sisco and veteran Caleb Joseph. The organization also believes that minor-league catcher Austin Wynns, who spent the past season at Double-A Bowie, could also be a major league contributor in 2018.

“Castillo helped the club move on from Matt Wieters and bridge the gap to see that Caleb Joseph was healthy and allow more time for the club to develop Sisco and Wynns,” Duquette said.

Filling the starting catcher role — at least for the short-term — was a top offseason priority this time last year, and the Orioles signed Castillo last Dec. 16 just two weeks after he was non-tendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks, an early move given the team’s reputation as a slow mover in the free-agent race. The decision to give Castillo a second-year player option further showed his signing was made to serve as a stopgap until Sisco was deemed ready to take over the starting job. Joseph also entered the 2017 season as a question mark, coming off a season that saw him hit just .174 without a single RBI in 49 games.

Castillo entered the season as the team’s unquestioned starter, though Joseph saw more playing time in the second half of the season as he rebounded from last year’s rocky campaign. Castillo made it known that he enjoyed playing with the Orioles, his fourth organization since the beginning of the 2015 season, and was optimistic about the team’s prospects to compete next year. But Castillo made it clear he wanted to be an everyday catcher and coming off the best offensive season among any catcher in a weak free-agent market at the position, he can figure to receive a more lucrative multi-year deal than the one he received last offseason.

Wieters, who inked a two-year, $21 million deal with the Washington Nationals during spring training after going unsigned all offseason, exercised his $10.5 million player option for 2018. Wieters posted a career-worst -0.7 WAR in 2017.

Ten Orioles players have now become free agents this offseason. The team declined club options on left-hander Wade Miley and shortstop J.J. Hardy for next season on Friday, and seven other players -- designated hitter Pedro Álvarez, utility man Ryan Flaherty, outfielder Craig Gentry, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, right-hander Ubaldo Jiménez, outfielder Seth Smith and right-hander Chris Tillman – became free agents on Thursday, the first official day of the offseason.

Castillo declining his option was first reported by FanRagSports.com.

eencina@baltsun.com

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