When catcher Welington Castillo decided earlier this month to decline his $7 million player option with the Orioles for 2018, one obvious question came to mind.
Is the Chance Sisco Era about to begin in Baltimore?
The answer, at least as we can best formulate it right now, is maybe.
Everyone loves prospects. And everyone wants to see just how good the most touted ones are. But prospects are people, too. They develop at different levels. There is no magic formula, no foolproof time to let them sink or swim.
That's going to be one of the biggest challenges the Orioles face in 2018. Handling Sisco correctly and/or evaluating him sufficiently will be essential for this organization going forward.
Because he could be a future star. Or he could be just another guy. The glimpses are there; so are the warts.
Sisco, the 22-year-old backstop, made his major league debut in early September and had six hits in 18 at-bats (.333 average), including two homers and two doubles.
He's been the organization's catcher of the future since the Orioles drafted him in the second round (61st overall) in 2013 out of a California high school.
Back then, the scouting report was that Sisco's bat, if it continued to progress, would play in the big leagues. The concern was whether he could learn to be an effective catcher -- he played mainly shortstop in high school before settling behind the plate his senior year.
Fast forward four-plus years, and the evaluation, frankly, is about the same.
Sisco has made some strides as a defensive player. In fact, some within the organization believe this was his best overall year -- even though he posted career lows in the minors for a full season in batting average (.267), on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.395) at Triple-A Norfolk -- due to the improvements he made in handling a game.
He'll get a chance to start proving that next year now that Castillo is gone. But he still could be eased into the position. That probably would be the smart thing to do. And the Orioles have that luxury with Caleb Joseph returning in 2018.
Joseph, who was once considered a good-hitting catcher with limited defensive skills in the minors, should be able to hold down the starting job next season thanks in part to an above-average skill set behind the plate.
That would allow Sisco to learn from Joseph and highly regarded catching instructor John Russell on a daily basis while playing maybe 40 or so big league games during the season.
Give him bite-size playing time, allowing Sisco to mature at the highest level.
But here's the rub: Sisco turns 23 in February. He's played 101 games at the Triple-A level. And we all know if Orioles manager Buck Showalter doesn't trust a player's defensive acumen, he is less willing to play him consistently.
So maybe the Chance Sisco Era in Baltimore shouldn't begin fully in April.
Maybe you start him at Triple-A again, let him keep playing daily and find a veteran journeyman with decent defensive skills to be the backup to Joseph on Opening Day. A backup catcher's role in the majors is typically defense first, and there are plenty of guys out there who could fill that spot, whether it's a familiar face such as Francisco Pena or someone who was with a different organization in 2017 but is looking for a new job.
There's also another interesting possibility here. The Orioles are expected to add defensive whiz Austin Wynns to the 40-man roster this winter to keep him from being exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Wynns has barely played above Double-A, where he hit .281 in 105 games for the Bowie Baysox in 2017. But the former 10th-rounder in 2013 turns 27 in December.
It might make more sense to promote Wynns as a big league backup -- again, defense first -- while allowing Sisco to gain more experience catching.
Former Oriole Matt Wieters, who was supposed to be a catching wunderkind but was actually older than Sisco when he made his major league debut in 2009, said repeatedly that the most difficult challenge for him when he was a rookie was learning how to handle the game defensively. Anything offensively that he could provide early on was gravy, he figured.
The opposite might be true for Sisco.
He is better suited to help the Orioles offensively than defensively right now. In a small sample size, Sisco failed to throw out any of the five runners that stole on him in the majors last September. He also threw out only 23 percent of would-be base stealers in the minors in 2017 -- and that's been his career average. Last season, the mid-range average for major league catchers throwing out base stealers was in the high-20 to low-30 percent range. Castillo led the majors with 49 percent.
Sisco still needs to improve his footwork and his mechanics while throwing -- scouts say he has arm strength. Then there's pitch framing and blocking and all the other little things that make up a great catcher.
Perhaps the easiest scenario is for the Orioles to take three catchers north next year from spring training: Joseph, Sisco and a defensive specialist. But that won't happen. Showalter prefers having an extra reliever in the bullpen early on if possible. And the team likely will have to put outfielder Anthony Santander on the roster for nearly two months to fulfill his Rule 5 requirements that started in 2017.
So, the Orioles almost certainly will take only two catchers. And the knee-jerk reaction is that Sisco will be one of them.
That's what the fans want. They want to see prospects blossom. They want to see the future now. The Orioles have done that in the past, too. They've given starting jobs to players such as Nick Markakis, Wieters, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop and watched them flourish.
But each of those guys was ready defensively to at least play competently at their respective positions. That may not be the case for Sisco. Not yet anyway.
And that's where the Orioles' dilemma sits. Castillo's out of the picture. Sisco can be in it, as a seldom-used backup or as a platoon with Joseph. Or he can spend a little more time in the minors working on defense in his age 23 year.
I'm not sure this one has been determined yet -- despite the obvious opening -- and it may not be until the final weeks of spring training.
Issue 239: November 2017