NATIONAL HARBOR — The Orioles arrived at this week's winter meetings hoping to gain better clarity on their future at catcher. One of executive vice president Dan Duquette's first acts Sunday night, as teams and agents settled into the Gaylord National Resort, was reaching out to agents of free-agent backstops to gauge the market at the position.
And as sun set on the banks of the Potomac River on the third and final full day of the meetings, the Orioles were still searching for their next starting catcher. They know they might remain waiting well into the offseason to find that player.
The Orioles have succeeded in waiting out the market to find free-agent talent that slips through the cracks, but filling the catcher position is no easy fix. A new catcher's responsibilities are plentiful, and the transition of getting accustomed to his pitchers, handling a staff and assuming leadership qualities on the field doesn't happen overnight.
"It's an important position, obviously — probably the most important position on the team, so who we choose will have a lot [of impact on] what kind of team we have and how competitive we are, so we want to make the right choice," Duquette said Wednesday evening in the team's suite several floors above the bustling hotel lobby. "We want to have a catcher who can help us run the game and contribute offensively, and those catchers are hard to find."
The Orioles have prospect Chance Sisco, who they believe is the catcher of the future, but need a stopgap. Duquette said he's also unclear when Sisco will be ready to handle the responsibilities of being an every-day catcher.
As Duquette spoke, two free agent catchers came off the board. Former Washington National Wilson Ramos, who is coming off major knee surgery, netted a two-year, $12.5-million deal with the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays and veteran A.J. Ellis agreed to a one-year, $2.5-million deal with the Miami Marlins.
Other free-agent catching options are unspectacular. All have their warts, from limited offensive output to below-average defensive metrics. Names on their list include Welington Castillo, a surprise non-tender of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and former Oriole Nick Hundley, who spent the past two years with the Colorado Rockies. The team has also sent out feelers on Kurt Suzuki and Chris Iannetta.
"That market goes in a hurry," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "There's times that we can see it, you don't have to strike with it, but a person's got to be there. I'm thinking the right person, you know, currently in-house, without getting into who that might be. We're going to have some maneuverability on our roster. We're only [at 36 players] now. We're going to be able to move some things around, unlike a lot of these clubs that aren't."
That could still bring them back to Matt Wieters, the homegrown product who is now testing free-agent waters. Duquette, Showalter and Wieters' agent, Scott Boras, said an eventual reunion with Wieters is possible. It's still not likely.
"Matt's always enjoyed playing in Baltimore, so it's always a possibility," Boras said. "… Look, he threw out over 35 percent of his runners. When Matt Wieters is behind the plate, the Orioles are in the playoffs. He's won Gold Gloves … and his ERA of the pitching staff is one run lower than when other catchers catch. I think Baltimore has a real commodity there. He's performed at high levels there."
"Matt's going to end up a good place," Showalter added. "And I haven't turned my back on the fact that he might be with us, because this market, like back to the tortoise and the hare, you have to be good at judging how this thing is going to fall when the chairs stop moving around, who has a chair. But Matt's going to have a big chair. He's going to do well."
Said Duquette: "Matt is still on our list of catchers."
Duquette said the Orioles are willing to offer a catcher a multi-year deal, which would give the team security while top prospect Sisco is ready to assume the reins.
"It depends," Duquette said. "Sometimes of you wait, the market comes to you. Sometimes if you wait, it goes away. It depends. When I was in Boston, [former Boston Red Sox CEO John] Harrington used to say, 'We can live with anybody for two years.' So the two-year contracts, that's always an option for the team."
It's still unlikely that fit is Wieters, who stands to make a lucrative deal that could be four years deep. The Orioles paid Wieters $15.8 million last season, after he signed the qualifying offer, and the team didn't make Wieters a $17.2-million qualifying offer this season. That was a significant investment, and unless Wieters' market slides, it's not likely the Orioles can retain him.
Boras echoed that the catching market is slow, and said Wieters might not get the deal he wants until late in the offseason.