Without playoff baseball filling their days, October is an occasion for the Orioles to take stock of their roster and start planning how they’ll put together their 2022 team.
That doesn’t just include which players will be back and who might replace them. For a team like the Orioles, who are starting to bring some of the products from executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ promised “elite talent pipeline” up to the majors, that planning also includes forecasting when their prospects could join the major league team and start contributing.
At some positions, prospects climbing the ladder will find an established part of their future blocking their way to the majors. Others don’t have much resistance once they arrive, and others are somewhere in between.
This month, we’ll break down how the Orioles got through 2021 at each position, which prospects are on the cusp of joining that mix, and how all that will color their offseason plans.
First up is catcher, a relatively stable position that the Orioles are hoping will change hands in a significant way soon.
Pedro Severino arrived as a waiver claim with the Orioles just days before the 2019 season began, and only Trey Mancini has played in more games for them since then. Severino has been part of several different catching combinations but has endured as the Orioles’ primary catcher through it all.
He arrived with a reputation of being able to catch and throw a bit but lacked a quality bat. He’s had stretches where his offense has excelled. This year wasn’t exactly one of them.
Severino hit 11 home runs with a .690 OPS and an 87 wRC+ in 2021 — meaning his offensive production was 13% lower than league average. The 28-year-old catcher was much better in the second half than the first, with seven of his 11 home runs coming after the All-Star break. He had a .770 OPS and a 106 wRC+ in the second half but has never had a season where he’s hit like that all year. In 2019 and 2020, he started hot before cooling significantly.
Defensively, Severino has been tied for the league lead in passed balls the last two seasons.
The rest of the major league factors
Severino began the year continuing his catching partnership with Chance Sisco, who never got going offensively and was batting .154 with a .431 OPS when he was sent to the minors on May 31. Two weeks later, after he hadn’t gotten going at Triple-A Norfolk, he was designated for assignment and claimed off waivers by the New York Mets. He had a .718 OPS in Triple-A for them.
Austin Wynns replaced Sisco, adding a much steadier defensive catcher to the Orioles’ roster. Wynns threw out 11 of 29 would-be base stealers while batting .185 with a .540 OPS as Severino’s backup, and late in the season, Nick Ciuffo was added to the roster as the third catcher. He spent much of the year on the Orioles’ taxi squad once he recovered from a hand injury.
If ever there was a position the Orioles were set at for the future, it’s catcher. Baseball’s top prospect, Adley Rutschman, spent the last two months of 2021 at Triple-A Norfolk and isn’t far from making his major league debut.
Rutschman, the first overall draft pick in 2019, hit .285 with an .899 OPS between Double-A Bowie and Norfolk in his first full pro season. Absent making the majors, something the Orioles weren’t going to accommodate for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with Rutschman’s performance, he accomplished much of what he set out to do. He sat just a handful of games in preparation of long major league seasons ahead. He worked well with pitchers the Orioles hope he’ll soon be catching in the big leagues.
And even though he was already in a good place with his swing, he used a midseason slump as an occasion to tinker with some aspects of his timing and swing load that helped keep him stay back longer and use his quick swing to still do plenty of damage.
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At least under the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires Dec. 1, the Orioles are incentivized to keep Rutschman in Norfolk for the first few weeks of 2022 to delay his free agency a year. It’s possible they hold him in the minors longer if they want to delay him reaching salary arbitration.
Whether either of those factors will be in place in a new agreement, or if the Orioles would use them if they were, is unclear. Unless something drastic happens, though, Rutschman will have long shifted from being the catcher of the future to the catcher of the present by this time next year.
Rutschman’s catching mate at Norfolk was fellow switch-hitter Brett Cumberland, who spent all season there to fill out the depth chart behind Rutschman, along with Maverick Handley and Cody Roberts. A couple of teenage catchers in Samuel Basallo and Creed Willems could form the next wave of catching talent. Basallo signed for $1.3 million in January out of the Dominican Republic and hit five home runs in the Dominican Summer League, while eighth-round pick Creed Willems signed for $1 million in this year’s draft.
The offseason outlook
Rutschman’s pending arrival means the Orioles have a unique task ahead of them this winter: they need a catcher good enough to help until Rutschman is called up, and content to perhaps only play once a week once he is.
Whether Severino is that guy when he could be making over $3 million in salary arbitration is tough to say. Even if he played the bulk of the games for the first two months of the season, the role would be so limited — and by that point, the salary guaranteed — that the Orioles may not want to commit to that.
Either of Wynns or Ciuffo could be a fine backup in a traditional sense, but the Orioles would be asking a lot of either of them to be an everyday big-league catcher. That means they may have to look elsewhere to find Rutschman’s place-holder. It’s a tough sell, but veteran catchers bounce around from year to year with worse outlooks for playing time than the Orioles will have to offer.
Truthfully, though, the CBA negotiations may impact this position for the Orioles more than anything else. If there are large-scale changes to when players are paid above the league minimum or reach free agency, they may create a situation where the Orioles just bring Rutschman up on the team from spring training for Opening Day.