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  • Writer's pictureGrant DeVivo

Birdland's Brick Walls

Six catchers to watch in the Baltimore Orioles’ Minor League organization

*Cover Photo: The Baltimore Banner


Catching has become one of the strongest positions in the entire Baltimore Orioles organization. That is thanks in large part to the rise of 2019 first overall pick and 2023 American League All-Star, catcher Adley Rutschman. Since his arrival and climb to stardom, the Orioles’ catching department has seen a complete 360 turnaround from where it was at the beginning of the rebuild in 2018. Each catcher excels in every aspect of the defensive game from pitch framing to throwing out would-be base stealers.


I, myself, am a catcher. I always pay attention to the catchers, watching how they carry themselves behind the plate and always looking for sources of inspiration to help improve my own game behind the dish. I have seen a ton of great catchers throughout the past couple of years, and I know the Orioles will be assigning an excellent group of catchers to play for their affiliates this season. I want to tell you about six catchers that you should keep an eye on this year when you venture out and explore one of the Orioles’ four affiliates in person.

 

Basallo is the first name that stands out to me. A native of the Dominican Republic, this young man burst onto the scene just last year after two seasons in the Florida league. It is worth noting that last season, he was only 19. Yet, he absolutely dominated Minor League pitching. He hit .313 with 20 home runs, 86 RBIs, and a .953 OPS in three stops at Low-A Delmarva, High-A Aberdeen, and Double-A Bowie. That’s one way to introduce yourself! He is currently MLB Pipeline’s 17th best prospect and the Orioles’ second-best prospect behind Jackson Holliday.

Samuel Basallo is baseball's No. 17 prospect and is oen of baseball's most exciting catching prospects right now. Photo: John Topoleski

Last September, I ventured back out to Aberdeen for the Ironbirds’ penultimate game of the 2023 season. Basallo was the main reason that I attended the game, as I was very excited to see him play for the first time. He impressed me with his throw downs to second base, indicating that he has an absolute hose piece for an arm. Oh, and the first at-bat he had in front of me ended in a moonshot down the right line. That 7-3 Ironbirds win was all I needed to see to acknowledge the bright future that he has in baseball.


With my 16-ticket package for the Baysox, I figure to see Basallo a ton in Bowie for at least the first half of the season. Double-A tends to get tougher for many prospects. The one-week sample size that he got with Bowie last September did not seem to phase him, as he went 7-for-15. Based on everything that I have seen of Basallo online, he does not seem scared by much and he seems to have a great attitude and work ethic. I can guarantee that he will not finish the season in Bowie and if all goes well, he may not even finish the season in Triple-A Norfolk. Nobody is playing over Rutschman, though perhaps he gets a taste of the big leagues in September.


Maverick Handley is a well-polished catcher who has hung around Birdland for a while now. Photo: Katie Gilmore

Handley has stuck around in Birdland for some time now. The 25-year-old from Denver, Colorado, was a 6th rounder out of Stanford back in 2019 and is too under-the-radar for the defensive machine that he is with the gear on. He has always been able to throw thanks to a very clean transfer and an absolute cannon for an arm. I mean, this guy can launch a throw to second base so quick that you would not even notice. His pitch framing improved tremendously from 2022 to 2023, as he seemed more comfortable with the new school stance last season. He’s got some surprise pop in the bat as well with his best power season being in 2022 (78 games, 11 HR, .417 SLG).


Expect to see Handley at Triple-A Norfolk again, where he spent all last season. If anything were to happen to one either Adley Rutschman or James McCann at the big league level, then Handley should be considered for a backup role on the 26-man. He has been around long enough and knows many of the organizations’ arms. It would be nice for those pitchers to have a guy like Handley with them in the big leagues at some point, a catcher that they are close with.


Silas Ardoin is one of the organizations' best pitch framers.

The 23-year-old Ville Platte, Louisiana native is truly one of the best all-around defensive catchers that the Orioles have in their system. I absolutely love Ardoin’s defensive game, especially his pitch framing. Ardoin, a Texas Longhorns alumnus, presents the target with a very simple stance, and he does a great job getting the thumb under low pitches, thus helping his pitchers gain more strikes. His blocking is above average as well, and his throwing game is on point too as evidenced by him throwing out 20 of 49 would-be base stealers with High-A Aberdeen last year (29%).


The bat will come around. He had a great intro to Double-A ball last summer, hitting .286 in 28 games, and that was a big improvement from his .215 clip in 68 High-A games. He has a nice swing, and he has competitive at-bats. The great thing about catching is that if one has a bad day hitting, he can back that up with a defensive showcase and still have a great game. Ardoin has an elite defensive skillset, and you’ll be in awe of his defense once you see him. I mean, just watch how many strikes he steals! Go watch him and tell me that I wasn’t right.

 

Defensive machine Connor Pavolony is part of a star catching trio in Bowie right now.

The 24-year-old University of Tennessee alumni is another example of an elite defense-first catcher. This is another guy who frames exceptionally well, throws well, and blocks well. Like Ardoin, he has the ability to get the thumb under the ball and bring a low pitch back into the zone for his pitcher. Not only does he bring great in-game skills, but he brings a tremendous knowledge of the game, and he knows exactly what he is doing back there. Pavolony and I have had many great conversations before, and I have gained new insights to catching and pitch framing just from (a) watching him and (b) spending time after the games talking to him. He’ll talk the talk and then walk the walk behind the dish.


Ok, yes, he only has a .609 Minor League OPS and is batting just .172 in 3 seasons in pro ball. He is the type of catcher who will get the job done with the glove first before the bat. He reminds me of myself. I am batting just .188 this season with a .410 OPS, but I am getting the job done defensively. He and I are very similar players, and I look forward to seeing him catch in Bowie soon.

 

Creed Willems

Creed Willems is a power-hitting young backstop on the rise in the Orioles' organization. Photo: John Topoleski

The Orioles selected Willems in the 8th round of the 2021 draft when he was just 18 years old. Since arriving in Birdland, the now-20-year-old high school pick has done nothing but mash the ball, establishing himself as an exciting offensive catcher in the Orioles’ farm system and cracking MLB Pipeline’s list of the Orioles’ Top 30 prospects (No. 30). Willems’ offensive identity is power, as he slugged .395 last season (.616 with Low-A Delmarva) while launching 17 home runs. When he connects with a ball, he sends it a long way. Every home run that I have seen him hit was an absolute moonshot. According to Press Box, legend has it that when he signed his contract with the Orioles and took his introductory round of batting practice at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, he one-hopped the warehouse.


If you’re a baserunner on the basepaths and you are trying to steal on Willems, you better have a good jump. Willems will cut runners down trying to steal, and he caught an impressive 34/72 runners attempting to swipe a bag (32%). He has an absolute hose piece for an arm. He is continuously working on his blocking and framing, which aren’t entirely too terrible as is, but once he polishes that, the he has the makings to be one of the most exciting all-around catching prospects to watch develop over the next couple of years.


Randy Florentino

Randy Florentino has been a great pickup for the Orioles organization since his arrival.

Florentino, a native of the Dominican Republic, was claimed by the Orioles prior to last season. So far, it has been a nice little pick up, as the former Rangers backstop has served as a great depth option in the farm system. Like Pavolony, he will do the job with he glove first before the bat. He hit just .221 with 23 RBI and a .613 OPS last season, but he had a nice defensive campaign. Florentino is a very athletic catcher, and he has the ability to cover ground and move a lot. He’ll smother balls in the dirt, he’ll be aggressive to pounce on any ball in general, and he presents pitches well with his athletic style of pitch framing.


I had a conversation with reliever Cameron Weston’s father at an Ironbirds game last fall, and he said that Cameron really enjoys throwing to Florentino. Catchers need to be able to communicate with their pitchers, be leaders, and earn their pitchers’ trust. Florentino is obviously doing that. Florentio will begin 2024 with the Ironbirds. This is a young backstop that has, as mentioned earlier, been a nice pickup for the Orioles and is someone that you should keep an eye on as you watch an Orioles Minor League game this season.

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