The Baltimore Orioles have somewhat of an iron man behind the plate in catcher Matt Wieters. He appeared in 140 games at the catcher position while starting 134 of them. His 1201 innings of work behind the plate over the course of the 2013 season was the highest workload among catchers in all of baseball and he has worked the most innings (4600) behind the plate since 2010, his first full season in the big leagues.
Knowing that we have a reliable starting catcher who can handle 80+% of the workload the Baltimore Orioles really just have to figure out the back-up catcher position.
The Taylor Teagarden era appears to be over in Baltimore as Steve Clevenger, acquired from the Chicago Cubs along with Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, took over the back-up catching duties in mid-September.
Clevenger is a Baltimore native and is still relatively young, at just 27 years old, but is he the answer at back-up catcher for the Orioles?
He holds a career batting line of .311/.373/.428 over eight minor league seasons which suggest he is a high contact/on-base guy, but he offers nothing in the way of home run power although he is capable of driving the ball in the gaps with mild consistency.
Defensively he’s about average, although you would actually expect him to be better than he’s shown. He has above average arm strength; he threw out 27% of runners in the minors, but has had trouble throwing runners out at the major league level with a 13% caught stealing rate over 57 games behind the plate since 2011. According to a scouting report by Baseball America Clevenger has “improved his ability to block balls and manage a pitching staff”.
If Clevenger isn’t their guy then another catcher in the organization, who deserves a chance to prove himself at the Major League level, is Brian Ward.
Making contact with the ball isn’t an issue; it’s simply the quality of that contact as he often hits weak ground balls and isn’t nearly fast enough to beat any of them out for infield hits. He would be a quality back-up catcher but his value is tied directly to his defensive ability.Ward is the soundest defensive catcher in the organization other than Matt Wieters. He has a cannon for an arm (1.80 average pop time, high of 1.71), throwing out 40% of would be base-stealers in the minors, can block nearly anything that comes his way, and his range behind the plate is phenomenal. The problem for him, of course, has always been the bat.
The final in-house option, legitimate option that is, for the Orioles and the back-up catcher spot on the roster is Caleb Joseph.
Caleb is a player that profiled as just a back-up catcher the last few minor league seasons, but one who needed to seriously work on his defensive abilities behind the dish. 2013 was a breakout season for him offensively; he had a triple slash line of .299/.346/.494 with 22 home runs and 31 doubles. Having finally developed and fine-tuned his power stroke and approach at the plate he has thrust himself into the conversation as a guy who could back-up Matt Wieters and also play a little first base.
The problem of course has been his defense. He has improved it over the years but is mostly average across the board with a weak arm. He could stick behind the plate as a back-up but since he is athletic enough to play first base and even the outfield in a pinch, if the power continues to develop, that’s where he could ultimately find himself.
With three different in-house options for the back-up catcher spot, and all three players offering up something unique from the other, it’s really a matter of what the roster could benefit from the most.
Brian Ward offers the most defensively and you wouldn’t have to worry about him not being able to handle a full work-load if Wieters ever needed any serious time off due to fatigue or injury. The question of course is how the bat would play at the Major League level.
Steve Clevenger is a touch above average defensively and his offensive skills are limited to making good contact and having a keen eye at the plate, which boosts his on-base skills. However, his inability to throw runners out at even the rate he was in the minors and the fact that his offensive abilities haven’t quite played up to the Major League level, yet, is cause for concern.
Finally we have Caleb Joseph. He certainly has the most offensive potential of the bunch and could be a legitimate power bat off the bench and play adequate defense behind the plate when Wieters needs a day off. His defensive abilities may not play up well to serving as an everyday catcher in the big leagues, but if he truly does hit enough – like say a Mike Napoli – then the tradeoff would be worth it.