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With rookie catchers Sisco, Wynns, Orioles start slow move toward future in spiraling season

With rookie catchers Sisco, Wynns, Orioles start slow move toward future in spiraling season
Orioles catcher Chance Sisco, left, and Austin Wynns wait in the dugout for their round of batting practice ahead of Wynns' major league debut on June 5, 2018, at Citi Field in New York. (Jon Meoli)

Orioles rookie catcher Austin Wynns' big league debut Tuesday came under circumstances far beyond his control. It was actually supposed to come Sunday, but a washout and a day off delayed what is, at least symbolically, a significant moment in the 2018 Orioles season.

In between when his debut was supposed to happen and when it did, the team's top decision maker, executive vice president Dan Duquette, declared that it was time to look toward the future as the big league club stumbled to the worst record in the game.

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That the Orioles begin this six-game road trip in the first full week of June with a pair of rookie catchers in Wynns and Chance Sisco can be interpreted as the first step toward whatever that future may be.

"I'm looking at it positively," manager Buck Showalter said before the team’s series opener against the New York Mets. "There's some growing pains, but where we are with Caleb [Joseph] and Andrew [Susac], it's a good opportunity for Chance and Wynns to get a feel, get their feet wet.

"We think it's a potential strength of ours if we can keep them all in the mix. On paper, there's some challenges with having two catchers in the big leagues that haven't had a lot of experience, but hopefully that'll be a short learning curve."

The Orioles knew all spring long that all four catchers on their 40-man roster would be required at one point or another. But Joseph and now Susac have struggled at the plate, while Sisco has been allowed to grow on the job. That the two rookies, who were drafted together in 2013 and have played together in every season of their professional careers, are in the majors together this early in the season is "a unique situation," Wynns said.

But that's only from a personal standpoint. Sisco said they’re “not really focusing” on their position as possible bastions of the future the Orioles are now playing toward.

"We've got to stay in the moment, and we have a job to do right now," Sisco said. "That's to try to win these games that we have on our schedule right now. We're not really worried about the future — just trying to help each other out and help this team win right now."

Such will be the balance the Orioles try to strike for the rest of this season as they possibly move out some of their veteran pieces nearing free agency — All-Stars Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Brad Brach and Adam Jones — and give extended looks to the prospects they have in the upper minors.

Even as Joseph struggled at the plate with some bad luck and had uncharacteristic lapses behind the plate for the Orioles, he probably provided the greatest value of the four catchers by virtue of his experience with the pitching staff overall. But Showalter said he's "making some progress offensively, just not quite there yet."

Susac, who replaced him May 17, was sent back to Triple-A Norfolk. Showalter said it was probably unfair to Susac to call him up so quickly after he returned from the disabled list with an ankle injury.

"He's going to hopefully go down there and get back to where he was," Showalter said.

That leaves Wynns, who batted eighth with Alex Cobb pitching Tuesday, and Sisco to grow at the highest level together.

Part of what Wynns, 27, has learned from Sisco, 23, a close friend from the moment they got drafted, is the importance of trying to do whatever he can to get the team out of its current funk.

"There's the hard side," Wynns said. "The Orioles have been struggling, so it's been tough. It's not easy right now, so we're just trying to get back and just win. That's what you want. You want to win the day."

But what the rookie backstops can control is something Sisco learned from both his three months of experience on his own and from Caleb Joseph while the veteran catcher was in the majors: Preparation is everything.

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"Just being on the same page with signs, be on board with everything," Wynns said. "And if you have a question, ask. You want to make sure you know everything before going in, and have a plan. He just told me: ‘Don't be scared to ask questions.’

Said Sisco: "Obviously, Caleb was willing to help me with everything, and just seeing how he was with me, it made me comfortable to ask him anything. So I let Austin know that if he needs anything, ask. Everyone's here to help him. And be yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. We're all here for him."

It's unclear what Wynns will provide the Orioles offensively. He was coming off a breakout year in the minors in 2017 with Double-A Bowie but was batting .257 with a .718 OPS for the Tides. He's known as a strong defensive backstop, and Showalter already likes the energy he brings to the club.

"He's got the right kind of excitement, kind of taking it all in," Showalter said. "A really good senior sign. One of those guys who, at every level, managers loved to have him because he's such a high-energy, effort, always-on [guy]. [Norfolk manager Ron Johnson] and [Bowie manager Gary Kendall] used to talk about how it didn't matter the rain, sleet, [heat]. He just always was the same, so I know he's looking forward to the opportunity."

Sisco has hit a rough patch overall in his first full major league season, batting .210 with a .655 OPS and seeing 15 straight base-stealers succeed after he caught nine of his first 18 this season. Sisco said he's focused on his part in that stolen-base equation, which is getting the ball out as fast as possible.

"There's been some throws that haven't been perfect," Sisco said. "There's been some things that could be a little bit better. I've looked at video that I'm trying to clean up, but for the most part, I've just been focusing on that aspect of quick feet and getting it out as quick as possible."

"He'll be the first to tell you he could have thrown some of them out," Showalter said. "I think as you all know, we've been very hard on our pitchers about ... giving them a chance. There are some he had a chance that he didn't throw out. Those are ones that he was really frustrated with. But he got off to a good start, so we know he's capable."

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