With baseball set to officially transition into the offseason this week and the hot stove season to begin to simmer, it's time to revisit the Orioles' organizational depth all across the diamond as a means to establish where they're strong and which areas they'll need to address, both this offseason and going forward.
For the next two weeks, we'll assess the Orioles' present and future at every position, and recap how both the major and minor leaguers at each spot fared in 2017, starting at catcher.
In the first year of the post-Matt Wieters era, the Orioles somewhat surprisingly improved at catcher, at least from an offensive perspective. Free-agent addition Welington Castillo hit .282 with 20 home runs and an .813 OPS — all career highs — as the primary catcher, while Caleb Joseph bounced back from a nightmarish 2016 to hit .256 with eight home runs and a .700 OPS as his main backup.
Earlier in the season, the Orioles also got capable backup work from Francisco Peña, and at the end, they got a promising glimpse at highly rated prospect Chance Sisco.
In the next week or so, Castillo's camp must inform the Orioles whether he'll be picking up his $7 million player option to return, or go to free agency for a second straight year. When the Orioles signed him last year to a one-year contract with the option after the Arizona Diamondbacks didn't tender him a contract, the perception was that the Orioles were the main suitor for his services.
That's partially because Castillo was dogged by a reputation around the game as a bat-first backstop whose strengths there, primarily his throwing arm, were outweighed by poor game-calling and handling of a pitching staff. That the Diamondbacks rotation improved drastically this year as the Orioles staff went in the opposite direction didn't do much outside of Baltimore to change that. However, none of those concerns became public in the Orioles clubhouse if they existed at all, and the club will be happy to have him back if he does decide to return.
Joseph will be directly affected by this decision, as it's become clear over his four major league seasons that he needs to play at least a few times a week to be effective at the plate. Castillo's return would again relegate Joseph to backup duty, or worse if the club decides Sisco is ready to be in the majors full time.
As the team's top prospect entering the 2017 season, Sisco is the headliner in the minor league system when it comes to catchers. He showed more power this year than any other, with seven home runs for Triple-A Norfolk and two in 10 games at the major league level in September. He's starting to use the whole field more often and has shown himself to be a good hitter with a strong approach at all levels of the minors.
What will determine the 22-year-old's role both in 2018 and going forward is his defense, which by all accounts has improved since he took the position up as a senior in high school but is still a question for some. He got control of the running game in the second half of the season, but is still learning the finer points of his throwing mechanics and game-calling as he grows into the position. The Orioles believe being around bench coach John Russell every day will be a big benefit to Sisco when he's in the majors.
Behind him at Double-A was Austin Wynns, who went to the Arizona Fall League last year after a strong season and hit .281 with 10 home runs and a .796 OPS at Bowie in 2017. Wynns, 26, is seen as a strong defender and game-caller who can ride that to a major league bench role alone, and is a candidate to be protected from the Rule 5 draft when the team makes its 40-man roster additions this fall.
Otherwise, catching depth will take a hit this offseason as Peña and Audry Pérez, veteran presences at Norfolk and Bowie respectively, hit minor league free agency this week. Yermin Mercedes remains a bat-first backstop in the low minors, and the team was pleased with how seventh-round draft pick Ben Breazeale hit at Short-A Aberdeen this year. He had a .318 average with an .895 OPS and five home runs in 57 games.
Whether Castillo returns or not, the Orioles seem to be set at catcher to some degree in the short term and long term. If they decide Sisco is ready to start the season in the majors in 2018, his left-handed bat will work well in a platoon with either Castillo or Joseph. And while protecting Wynns from the Rule 5 draft might be prudent because the Orioles don't have an alternative to him internally, a third catcher on the 40-man roster with options will make things much easier in the event the Orioles need to add one because of an injury.