Despite the nearing expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement on December 1st, the free-agent market has been livelier than expected.
Most focused on the seven-year, $131 million extension the Toronto Blue Jays gave starter Jose Berrios and the five-year, $77 million deal the Detroit Tigers gave left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, a onetime Orioles prospect.
The Orioles weren’t going to be signing starting pitchers to those sorts of deals, but there was a more relevant contract that received little attention. The Atlanta Braves signed catcher Manny Piña to a two-year, $8 million contract with a $4 million option for 2024.
That’s relevant because Pina is the type of catcher the Orioles might have been considering to back up top prospect Adley Rutschman.
Earlier this month, the Orioles released Pedro Severino, who may have gotten a $3 million arbitration-induced salary in 2022 as a backup to Rutschman had the Orioles not cut ties with him. The $3 million price tag for a backup catcher was too high for the Orioles.
But it wasn’t for Atlanta. The Braves had previously extended Travis d’Arnaud with a two-year, $16 million deal and, happy with their World Series winning team, decided that they needed an upgrade to pair with him.
Piña sounded like an ideal candidate for the Orioles. He hit .189 with 13 homers and 33 RBIs in 75 games for the Milwaukee Brewers and is considered strong defensively. He had a .9 defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and threw out 30 percent (11 of 37) runners attempting to steal.
In 2021, Piña made a $1,650,000 and, at 34, must have been delighted to receive such an attractive offer.
The Orioles had three catchers on the 40-man roster at the end of the season: Severino, Austin Wynns and Nick Ciuffo. Currently, there are none, and there may not be any at any time this offseason.
Rutschman doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster until he joins the 26-man roster, and the team could sign two catchers to minor league contracts, knowing that one or both could start the season with the Orioles, depending on whether the service time clauses change in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
If Piña’s deal is indicative of the market for backup catchers, and he’s played in more than half his team’s games only in 2017 and 2018, the Orioles might have to adjust their budget.
MLBTradeRumors.com lists 11 free-agent catchers. Three played for the Orioles last season: Severino, Wynns and Chance Sisco, whom the New York Mets released at the end of the season.
The others are Robinson Chirinos, Yan Gomes, Andrew Knapp, Sandy León, Roberto Perez, Wilson Ramos, Austin Romine and Kurt Suzuki.
The Orioles also will sift through the long list of minor league free agents, which includes Ciuffo and Taylor Davis, who was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates this week.
Davis signed as a minor league free agent with the Orioles before the 2020 season and was at the alternate site in Bowie. He remained in the organization this year and played 12 games for Triple-A Norfolk, catching just two before he was traded to Pittsburgh on June 15th for minor league outfielder Jose Berroa.
Manager Brandon Hyde was familiar with Davis, whose major league resume consists of just 22 games, 20 with the Chicago Cubs from 2017-2019 and two with the Pirates this past season. Hyde was a Cubs coach in 2017 and 2018.
Davis hasn’t had success throwing out runners. Each of the 14 runners who attempted to steal against him was successful, but perhaps he could return as a catcher at Norfolk.
Suzuki, who’s 38, could be a possible backup to Rutschman. In 2021, he made $1.5 million with the Los Angeles Angels, playing in 72 games, hitting .224 with six homers and 16 RBIs with a .636 OPS.
Would Suzuki, who has played 15 years with five teams, accept a backup role to Rutschman where he might play fewer games than he did in 2021?
Getting the right backup to Rutschman may be tricky. A veteran would have to be comfortable with all the attention that’s going to be focused on the rookie, let alone a role that could mean he plays just once or twice a week—unless Rutschman is an occasional designated hitter.
That backup also would have to realize he’s not going to play with a contending club in 2022, but it could be an ideal way for someone to extend a career.
León seems to be a possible fit. The 32-year-old is a career .212 hitter and last year hit just .183 with four homers and 14 RBIs in 83 games with Miami. In his 10-season career, León has thrown out 33 percent of runners trying to steal.
It seems likely the Orioles will find their extra catchers later rather than sooner. They hope that Piña’s contract doesn’t set a salary standard they can’t meet.