The Orioles have proceeded through winters past with one or two catchers on their 40-man roster. After claiming Ryan Lavarnway off waivers this week, the club seems to be collecting them like ornaments.
Lavarnway is the fifth catcher added to the 40-man, leaving more doubts about whether Steve Clevenger has a future in the organization.
Matt Wieters might not be ready on opening day, but Clevenger is being squeezed by Lavarnway and Caleb Joseph. Prospect Michael Ohlman also is on the 40-man and the Orioles value the defense provided by Brian Ward, who’s at Triple-A Norfolk.
Agent Josh Kusnick said there’s been “some dialogue” with the Orioles regarding Clevenger, the Mount St. Joseph’s graduate who broke camp as the backup last spring, but he’s still searching for answers.
“It’s confusing what’s going on with Steve,” Kusnick said. “They have five catchers on the 40-man roster. Steve was told through me based on what I’ve been told that if he comes to spring training in good shape, if he plays well and his defense improves, it’s wide open and he could win the backup job. That sounds wonderful, but as his agent, based on what happened last year, that is just hard for me to see happening right now. But you never know. I hope I am wrong.”
The Orioles acquired Clevenger and pitcher Scott Feldman from the Cubs on July 2, 2013 for pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Clevenger had a tremendous spring offensively, going 17-for-36 (.472) with two doubles, two home runs and seven RBIs in 14 games, but the Orioles didn’t confirm that he made the club until the end.
Manager Buck Showalter kept downplaying offensive stats, saying the candidates’ work behind the plate would determine a winner. Clevenger beat out Johnny Monell, who’s no longer in the organization, and went 5-for-20 with three doubles, a triple, four RBIs, three walks and three runs scored in April.
With Wieters headed to surgery, the Orioles traded for Nick Hundley on May 25 and optioned Clevenger two days later, choosing to keep Joseph and going with two right-handed hitters. Clevenger appeared in 35 games, accumulating only 12 at-bats in September after rosters expanded, and batted .225/.289/.337 with eight doubles, a triple and eight RBIs. Clevenger had four stints with the team.
Showalter wasn’t satisfied with Clevenger’s overall defense - the Baltimore native threw out three of 20 runners attempting to steal, while Joseph threw out 40 percent, according to baseball-reference.com - and the club had issues with his conditioning.
Clevenger has a minor league option remaining, which certainly could work against him. The Orioles wanted to re-sign Hundley before claiming Lavarnway. They wanted more choices.
They apparently don’t want Clevenger playing more positions. He was a shortstop in high school and can move around the infield, but the Orioles instructed him to focus on his catching. The question remains whether there’s room for him behind the plate, especially if Wieters is in the lineup on April 6.
“I just don’t understand what’s going on with Steve and the club,” Kusnick said. “Last year, Steve comes into spring training and does well and is told that he’ll be the backup and he was for a month. Then Wieters went down and they traded for Hundley and Steve is the one to go to Triple-A. That was a rough year. I don’t think that’s fair to Steve, but the Orioles had an amazing season. If you want to say the end justifies the means, what they did obviously worked, but I think Steve could have helped them and I think he could help them this year. And I know he wants to. It’s just a matter of getting a prolonged opportunity and that is something he has not gotten yet.”
Lavarnway also plays first base. He didn’t catch in any of the nine games he played for the Red Sox this year and has thrown out only 10 of 63 runners attempting to steal in the majors. Maybe he’s not a true challenger to Clevenger and the other candidates. Maybe his placement as the fifth catcher on the 40-man comes with an asterisk.
“As an agent, I stay out of player personnel decisions,” Kusnick said. “They have a responsibility to do what’s best for the club, so I stay out of that, but at the same time there comes a point were I’ve got to say something. ‘Hey, what’s going on here with my guy, what’s his future?’
“Steve has two-plus years service time, he’s a left-handed bat, he plays multiple positions. But right now, in the present, they have five catchers on the 40-man. Unless there’s a trade, somebody’s going to get short-changed. I’m just hoping it’s not my guy.”