BALTIMORE — Over the final two games of the Oakland series, Orioles catchers on the 25-man roster collected two home runs, three doubles, and nine RBIs.
That production came with Matt Wieters sidelined due to a hamstring issue as Baltimore completed a four-game sweep over the hapless Athletics. And it could offer a glimpse into the Orioles’ future at the position with Wieters set to become a free agent at the end of the season.
Could the combination of Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger — or another quality backup paired with the former — make the decision not to re-sign Wieters an easier one?
The notion isn’t as far-fetched as it would have sounded a year ago when you consider the three-time All-Star selection still isn’t catching consecutive games 14 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Wieters was always going to be a challenge to re-sign because of super agent Scott Boras, but would giving a lucrative long-term contract to a catcher approaching the wrong side of 30 even be the right move for a club with other holes to address this offseason?
In 272 plate appearances this season, Joseph has hit .255 with 11 homers, 43 RBIs, a .323 on-base percentage, and a .780 on-base plus slugging percentage. In contrast, Wieters has batted .278 with five homers, 17 RBIs, a .305 on-base percentage, and a .755 OPS in 167 plate appearances. Couple that similar offensive production with the fact that the 29-year-old Joseph is under club control through the 2020 season and you have a sound argument in favor of going with the cheaper option, especially if you pair Joseph with a good backup catcher that can spell him two or three times a week in a timeshare that would keep him fresh and help his offense as we’ve seen it do since Wieters has returned.
That’s where Clevenger could enter the picture as he was recently recalled from Triple-A Norfolk after hitting .305 for the Tides this season. Serving as the designated hitter over the final two games of the Oakland series, Clevenger collected four hits in Sunday’s 18-2 win and blasted a three-run shot off All-Star pitcher Sonny Gray on Monday night, making him the first Oriole actually from Baltimore to homer at Camden Yards.
He’s 10-for-24 with three extra-base hits in his brief time with the Orioles this season.
The sticking point with Clevenger receiving an opportunity to be Baltimore’s backup over the last couple years has been his defense, but manager Buck Showalter and other members of the organization have credited his work ethic and improvement behind the plate, making him a distinct possibility to factor into the catching picture for 2016 and beyond. Of course, the Pigtown native is more of a unknown than Joseph at this point — at least playing with the Orioles — but he has a track record for handling the bat well in the minors despite his defense holding him back.
Similar sentiments were shared about Joseph in the past as he was stuck at Double-A Bowie for four straight seasons, making you wonder if Clevenger could follow in those footsteps as a late bloomer to find success at the major league level.
In his second season in the majors, Joseph has shown himself to be capable of serving in a role much bigger than the traditional backup catcher who plays only once a week. And in limited opportunities this season, Clevenger is stating a case to be the complementary piece to help fill the catching void should Wieters depart.
Taking nothing away from the All-Star catcher, but the Orioles are looking more and more capable of being able to survive without him as his free agency is rapidly approaching.