Catching up on the Orioles’ plans behind the plate

The clock keeps ticking on Adley Rutschman, and the sound of it can drown out a 747.

A one-one makes more noise.

Rutschman is going to play in the majors in 2022, but Orioles fans want to know whether he breaks camp with the team or returns to Triple-A Norfolk, where he appeared in 43 games last summer and batted .312/.405/.490 with nine doubles, two triples, five home runs and 20 RBIs.

He threw out runners attempting to steal second and third base. He handled the pitching staff with a maturity and confidence that also separates him from the pack.

He’s special, exactly what the Orioles envisioned when choosing him over prep shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., who’s been named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year and is a serious candidate to start at shortstop or third base for the Royals on opening day.

Depends how the organization chooses to manipulate service time and eligibility for salary arbitration. Just like the Orioles, who also are waiting on the new collective bargaining agreement and any changes to the rules.

The Orioles must have a pretty good sense of what they’ll do with Rutschman, because it dictates how they treat the position in the offseason.

They’re going to pursue a catcher in free agency and expand their search beyond the list of available minor leaguers. They need someone they feel can be trusted to make most of the starts if Rutschman’s debut is delayed and are considering every option available.

Maybe they find that player on a minor league deal. A veteran who has plus skills behind the plate and can serve as a mentor for Rutschman. But they’re also expected to consider someone on a major league contract if the price is right.

And if that player is willing to step back into a reserve role.

The Orioles began the past two seasons with Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco as their catchers. Jesús Sucre made the club in 2019 as a non-roster invite, pushing Sisco to the minors despite a red-hot spring. Sisco and Caleb Joseph, both free agents this winter, broke camp in 2018.

Thumbnail image for Wynns-Throws-Orange-sidebar.jpgSeverino is eligible again for arbitration and his salary could climb above $3 million, which makes no sense for the rebuilding Orioles and their intention to start Rutschman at some point next year. Austin Wynns and Nick Ciuffo remain with the club and could be in Sarasota as part of the competition, though 40-man space is tight, but an outsider or two figure to intrude.

Here’s the current list of major league free agents per, which can grow with non-tenders:

Tucker Barnhart: $7.5 million club option, $500,000 buyout
Robinson Chirinos
Yan Gomes
Sandy León
Roberto Pérez: $7 million club option, $450,000 buyout
Manny Piña
Buster Posey: $22 million club option, $3 million buyout
Wilson Ramos
Austin Romine
Chance Sisco
Kurt Suzuki
Christian Vázquez: $7 million club option, $250,000 buyout
Mike Zunino: $4 million club option, $1 million buyout

Some eliminations are obvious based on the cost. If the Orioles are going to spend any significant amount this winter, it’s going to be on Trey Mancini’s extension, and we don’t know whether that’s happening.

Sisco also seems unlikely after the Orioles designated him for assignment in June and the Mets claimed him.

The Orioles expressed interest in León back when he was with the Nationals. His name came up at the Winter Meetings. But that was a long time ago and under the previous regime.

Any free agent is going to weigh the opportunities to start, along with the money, when choosing an offer, which is why a minor league deal seems like the easiest fit. But the Orioles won’t narrow their initial search.

Brett Cumberland, 26, played at Triple-A this summer and again is eligible to be taken in the Rule 5 draft. He registered an impressive .352 on-base percentage in 84 games, but batted .187 with a .330 slugging percentage and continues to work on improving his defense.

He can’t do anything about the lack of experience that the Orioles want in a new catcher.

Wynns is the best in-house option based on his 115 major league games and ability to throw out runners attempting to steal - 38 percent this season, compared to the league average of 23. Ciuffo was mainly a taxi squad player who appeared in only two games.

Maverick Handley, a sixth-round pick in 2019 out of Stanford University, hasn’t played above Single-A. Cody Roberts, an 11th-rounder in 2018 out of the University of North Carolina, divided 51 games this summer between Single-A Aberdeen, Double-A Bowie and Norfolk, and posted a .359 on-base percentage.

Jordan Cannon was selected in the 10th round in 2019 out of Sam Houston State and appeared in only 31 games with low Single-A Delmarva this season due to injury. Samuel Basallo is the 24th-rated prospect in the system per who’s only 17 and spent 2021 in the Dominican Summer League. Ramon Rodriguez spent most of the summer in A-ball and currently is playing in the Arizona Fall League. The Orioles drafted Connor Pavolony and Creed Willems in back-to-back rounds this year and they joined Basallo at the fall instructional league camp.

Handley, Roberts, Cannon, Basallo, Rodriguez, Pavolony and Willems will be in the system in 2022 and create a nice wave of catchers behind Rutschman. They aren’t solutions to the catching situation on opening day and the months beyond it.

The Orioles will shop the free agent market, walking every aisle of it.

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