Baltimore Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph on reporting to spring training in his 11th season with the organization. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun video)
The lockers in the Orioles’ spring training clubhouse are not assigned randomly. There are certain spots for certain veteran players, including the one that is occupied by Caleb Joseph at the head of catchers’ row.
It must feel strange after all those years in the minor leagues and four more backing up Matt Wieters and Welington Castillo. It must be wonderful after nearly giving up on the game just a few years ago.
The onetime minor league mainstay has become the mentor, already an important resource for top catching prospect Chance Sisco and the other catchers in camp. He’ll also play a critical role as the Orioles sort through the unusually large number of pitchers in camp.
“Quite a difference,” Joseph said, as he dressed for the Orioles’ first pitchers and catchers workout Wednesday at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. “It seems like just yesterday I was latching onto Wieters. Even working with Welington last year, just trying to feel some stuff out. It’s a big responsibility I take a lot of pride in. I want to help those guys out just like Wieters and even some of the older backups with Wieters who helped me out — the Chad Moeller types. I want to be that for these guys, too.”
There’s nothing presumptuous about that. Joseph, 31, knows that nothing is ever going to be guaranteed. He was the guy who hung around the Double-A level so long that he was jokingly known as the “Mayor of Bowie.”
“It’s my 11th year,” Joseph said. “I think I started all the way at the bottom of this locker chain and moved all the way up. It’s exciting, but I’m going into it like I’m still fighting for a spot. I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over that. Ten seasons of fighting for your life. I don’t think I’ll ever feel really comfortable.”
He certainly won’t be getting comfortable anytime soon, because the spring workload for the catchers will be enormous. There are so many pitchers at spring training – 35 and counting — that the Orioles have had to employ a big chunk of an auxiliary clubhouse to keep them all at the major league facility.
“I was talking to [bench coach and catching instructor] John Russell about it yesterday,” Joseph said. “We’re going to have to do some things maybe a little differently than we have in the past in terms of our bullpen sessions. We’re going to have to really pay attention in the bullpen sessions. It’s going to be impossible to catch every pitcher in the bullpen scene, but that’s when you kind of get the most information.
“We’re going to have to learn on the fly. And this isn’t really abnormal, but you really have all kinds of guys you have to get to know. This is a high number, so you have to make sure you get to know all the guys.”
If Joseph sounds like every bit of a seasoned veteran, it’s not an act. He was the guy who played big brother to the younger prospects who kept climbing over him during all those years with the Baysox. And he had no choice but to absorb everything he could when Wieters went down with an elbow injury and Joseph was pushed into a regular role during the Orioles’ 2014 division title run.
There isn’t a lot of time to catch up when you make your major league debut six weeks before your 28th birthday, but Joseph has learned how to deal with a lot – both good and bad — over the past four seasons.
“Getting comfortable is not in his vocabulary,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I think that’s one of the things he’ll get across to them, that this game can be kind and it can be cutting sometimes if you’re not true to it. I feel real comfortable with him imparting the right things to people, because he has been there.”
Joseph knows that Sisco is being groomed to be the Orioles’ catcher of the future, but what else is new?
“There’s nothing beneath him,” Showalter said. “He’ll never forget how fleeting this all can be, but at the same time he’s got enough confidence. He doesn’t mind making somebody’s path a little easier.
“Whether it’s Chance or Austin [Wynns] or [Andrew] Susac, he doesn’t look at them as a threat to him. … He has been Austin Wynns.”
“That doesn’t mean I have all the answers. … I don’t,” he said. “But to be on that side where maybe the questions are being asked to you — it’s happened a few times and it feels a little different. It feels good. I’m not going to say you feel accomplished. It feels like you’re on the other side of your career. … A different beginning, if that makes sense.”