In addition to the omnipresent need for starting pitching that defines every Orioles offseason, this one will feature a fascinating hole to fill behind the plate.
Without a catcher currently on their 40-man roster after Pedro Severino, Austin Wynns and Nick CIuffo all elected free agency after being outrighted, the Orioles will be in the market for a bridge catcher. Eventually, perhaps sometime early in 2022, top prospect Adley Rutschman will be the everyday backstop.
Unless the Orioles are quietly planning to have Rutschman break camp with the team, which would be a departure from the widespread thought that he’ll start in Triple-A for club control reasons, then they have a few routes they can go.
One would be to shop near the top of the market, where a veteran catching crew that includes Roberto Perez, Yan Gomes, Manny Pina and Martin Maldonado will be seeking new homes on the kind of short-term deals that catchers of a certain age warrant.
If throwing a few million dollars at a starting-caliber catcher who will become an unnecessary luxury the moment Rutschman arrives is outside the Orioles’ means, they’ll likely turn to the massive list of minor league free agents.
Many of the players included in Baseball America’s list of minor league free agents this week have some major league experience as well — though, for the most part, not much. Outside of the aforementioned names, they and so many other catchers will sign in late January or early February with a minor league deal and an invite to spring training to compete for a job.
For that caste of players, all of whom will probably be inundated with offers that give them an $800,000 salary when they’re in the big leagues, they’ll likely look at the organization’s catching depth chart to assess their chances. The Orioles will have an attractive one, even if Rutschman looms large at the top of it. Otherwise, there’s not a lot stopping anyone the Orioles bring in from starting in the big leagues.
While there are strengths and weaknesses to everyone in that journeyman catcher group, it’s mostly a negligible difference in what they give a team. The good ones, like Caleb Joseph and Bryan Holaday, are great to have around and can really help a pitching staff. Other times, you end up with a Jesús Sucre the way the Orioles did in 2019 and have to move on quickly.
There will undoubtedly be one or two of those types of major league veterans on minor league deals in camp come February in Sarasota, Florida. But there are also a handful of intriguing options who the Orioles could bring in to provide a little more upside, to the extent minor league free agent catchers can.
Here are a handful of examples that could be fascinating fits:
Viloria, 24, has a unique career path in that he was called up to the big leagues from High-A at age 21 in 2018 and hasn’t taken a traditional development path. He’s always been an impressive defender and was promoted at that young age because of his ability to catch and throw, but he never took the next step in Kansas City and probably wasn’t going to supplant Salvador Perez anyway. He has a .752 career minor league OPS and decent on-base skills, but a lifetime .554 OPS in the big leagues.
A 2014 draftee of the Houston Astros from when Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was running their drafts, Ritchie spent 2021 at the launching pad that is Triple-A Reno in the Arizona Diamondbacks system and hit .317 with an .846 OPS. He’s always had strong on-base skills even without showing a ton of power throughout his career. Ritchie had a down year controlling the running game this season but has thrown out 27% of would-be base-stealers in his minor league career.
The same way Elias will be familiar with Ritchie, so too will major league field coordinator and catching instructor Tim Cossins be with Higgins. Cossins came over with manager Brandon Hyde from the Chicago Cubs and will know Higgins from when the Cubs drafted him as a college catcher in 2015. Higgins has hit well in the high-minors and made his major league debut at age 28 this summer but had his season cut short with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. It’s unclear when he’ll be back healthy, but if it’s early in the season, he could be a sensible addition to the Orioles’ catching depth the same way Tayler Davis was for the Cubs when Hyde and Cossins arrived.
Another former Royals backstop, Dini has a bit more offensive upside than Viloria. He’s produced a career .789 OPS in the minors, though he didn’t hit much when he appeared in the majors in 2019. In parts of three seasons at Triple-A Omaha, Dini has a .921 OPS — far better than any other level in his career. He threw out just two of 13 base stealers in 2021 but is at 29% for his career.