26 March 2015

Orioles Catching Options to Start the Season

Earlier in the week, Roch Kubatko of MASN reported Matt Wieters would start the season on the disabled list, as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery.  Last Tuesday, Wieters caught in a game for the first time since May 4, 2014.  Shortly after, the team shut Wieters down due to tendinitis in his surgically repaired elbow.  Despite getting good news after an x-ray came back clean, it’s looking more and more likely that Wieters will begin the 2015 season on the disabled list.  Due to the missed time after being shut down for an entire week, this isn’t necessarily a surprise, especially since Orioles manager Buck Showalter has stated that Wieters would not make the opening day roster as a designated hitter.  Furthermore, he isn’t even needed as a DH, as Matt examined last week.

So if Wieters won’t be on the opening day roster, who will be performing the catching duties for Baltimore?  The answer is likely to be Caleb Joseph, who handled catching duties along with Nick Hundley last year when Wieters’ season ended due to injury.  Joseph earned high praise for defense (especially in the pitch framing department), but his bat was anemic.  His 2014 batting line of .207/.264/.354 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in 275 plate appearances was good for a 72 wRC+.  Despite being well below average at the plate, his play behind it allowed him to produce 0.8 WAR (according to Fangraphs).  And since Fangraphs doesn’t account for pitch framing, it’s very likely that his production is understated.

With Joseph the likely starter, that leaves a roster spot for a backup catcher.  Besides Wieters and Joseph, there have been six other catchers make an appearance in spring training.  Of those six, only 3 remain in major league camp this spring: Steve Clevenger, Ryan Lavarnway, and J.P. Arencibia.  Spring training statistics don’t matter, but here’s how each has performed so far.


If one simply looks at those meaningless numbers, it would appear that no one even wants the backup catching job to start the season.  While none of the current candidates are swinging even a luke warm bat this spring, they wouldn’t have even made it this far if they haven’t had some previous success with the stick.

Clevenger has been a decent hitter in the minor leagues (especially against right-handed pitching), however he has never found consistent success or playing time in the majors, as evidenced by his .210/.270/.295 line in 341 plate appearances.  Lavarnway is a former (almost top) prospect who showed excellent power in the minor leagues (the guy hit 34 combined home runs in AA, AAA, and MLB as a 23 year old in 2011), but has never been viewed by evaluators as someone who could handle his position (he’s a catcher, but in name only).  Additionally, like Clevenger, his career batting line in the major leagues (.201/.249/.315 in 301 PA’s) fails to come anywhere close to his production in the minors.
Steve Clevenger (photo via Keith Allison)

Finally, there’s Arencibia, who actually is a former top prospect (he was ranked #48 by mlb.com in 2011).  Like Lavarnway, Arencibia’s main asset is his power.  However, unlike Lavarnway, Arencibia has actually showed the ability to hit for power in the major leagues.  Another way that he’s similar to Lavarnway is that he doesn’t bring much else to the table offensively or defensively (Fangraphs has his defense being worth -1.7 runs during his career).  Yes, he’s shown he can hit for power in the majors, but when you have a career on-base percentage of .255, it’s not going to help much.

Barring some sort of trade or major revelation in the next two weeks, the opening day backup catcher position is Steve Clevenger’s to lose.  Not only has he performed at least as well as the other options, he also provides a platoon partner for Caleb Joseph as the only left-handed hitting option.  Additionally, he’s likely the best defender of the 3 backup options remaining as well (Showalter has previously praised Clevenger’s defensive work this spring).  If that weren’t enough, Clevenger has an option remaining (Lavarnway and Arencibia do not) and is already on the “at-capacity” 40-man roster (Lavarnway and Arencibia are not).  When Wieters does return, the Orioles could then easily option Clevenger to Norfolk, without having the threat of him being claimed off waivers, as would be the case with the other options.

Let’s be honest, none of these options look all that great.  However, we’re likely only talking about a couple of weeks at most, barring any additional setbacks with Matt Wieters’ elbow. No matter who gets the role of backup catcher, it isn’t something that will make or break the Orioles 2015 season.