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Why one of the Orioles’ latest minor league signings could make their Opening Day lineup

Thanks to Major League Baseball owners’ decision to lock out players in the wake of the collective bargaining agreement’s expiration, the Orioles’ 40-man roster could remain without a catcher for months to come.

It’s possible, though, an eventual member joined the organization Wednesday, when Baltimore announced it signed catcher Jacob Nottingham to a minor league contract. Nottingham, 26, has appeared in the majors each of the past four seasons, spending 2021 flip-flopping between Milwaukee and Seattle.

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A 2013 sixth-round pick of the Houston Astros while Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias oversaw their drafts, Nottingham has yet to find much major league success with his bat, hitting .184/.277/.421 with strikeouts in nearly 40% of his plate appearances. When he’s made contact, he’s shown good power, with 11 of his 21 career hits going for extra bases, including eight home runs.

Defensively, both FanGraphs and Statcast rate Nottingham as a below-average to average pitch-framer during his time in the majors, though that would represent an improvement over the Orioles’ 2021 catching situation.

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Still, about four months before the Orioles are scheduled to begin the 2022 season, Nottingham is well-positioned to be their Opening Day catcher. Of course, plenty could change between now and then, both during and after the sport’s lockout.

Perhaps the most significant of those elements is the new CBA itself, which will play a massive role in determining whether Adley Rutschman, the game’s top prospect, is a member of Baltimore’s roster when it breaks camp. Under the previous CBA, organizations were incentivized to keep their best prospects in the minors weeks into a season to delay when they would eventually become free agents, and there’s little reason to think the Orioles wouldn’t have taken the same approach to Rutschman. Service time manipulation was reportedly among the primary negotiating points between the league and the players’ union in their pre-lockout meetings, and that likely will continue in the talks to come.

Jacob Nottingham, who spent the 2021 season with the Brewers and Mariners, has shown good power in his career, with 11 of his 21 career hits going for extra bases, including eight home runs.
Jacob Nottingham, who spent the 2021 season with the Brewers and Mariners, has shown good power in his career, with 11 of his 21 career hits going for extra bases, including eight home runs. (Aaron Gash/AP)

If that incentive remains and the Orioles thus elect to have Rutschman open 2022 back at Triple-A before his eventual ascendance to the majors, that leaves a gaping hole behind the plate in the early portion of the season. Each of the four catchers who appeared for them in 2021 are no longer with the team, and before Nottingham’s signing, none of the remaining backstops in the organization had major league experience.

The Orioles, of course, can change that. They can continue to make minor league signings during the lockout and even major league ones after it, perhaps adding a more veteran option. However, whichever catchers sign with Baltimore would need to be willing to move to a backup role once Rutschman arrives. It’s always possible an alternative arrives the same way as Pedro Severino, their most-used catcher of this rebuild: a late-spring waiver claim. It’s also expected that the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft will take place once the league and players agree on a new CBA, and the Orioles could elect to make a catching addition there.

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A long time stands between Nottingham and the job of being the Orioles’ Opening Day catcher. But as their mid-lockout roster stands, the possibility at least exists.

Around the horn

>> In the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft Wednesday, the Orioles selected two right-handed relief pitchers in Nolan Hoffman from the Seattle Mariners organization and Cole Uvila from the Texas Rangers organization. Both pitchers have struck out more than a batter per inning in their minor league careers.

>> The Orioles acquired right-hander Tommy Wilson from Seattle for cash considerations. The Mariners took Wilson from the New York Mets in the minor league Rule 5 draft earlier Wednesday.

>> Outfielder Reed Trimble, their third selection in the 2021 draft, underwent a left (non-throwing) shoulder labral repair last week and is expected to return to play in six to nine months.

>> Minor league pitcher Conner Loeprich underwent meniscus surgery in his left knee Tuesday but is expected to be ready for the start of the season.

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