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Best Orioles of the Century: A tale of two decades behind the plate

Best Orioles of the Century: A tale of two decades behind the plate

With fans stuck inside and no live sports for entertainment, it's time to look to the past. Over the next few weeks, NBC Sports Washington is putting together a Best of the Century team for the Baltimore Orioles. Through the past two decades, there has been a surprising amount of star power to come through Charm City, and now we can determine who has truly been the cream of the crop.

It makes sense to start at catcher, considering the most likely face of the 2020 Orioles, Adley Rutschman, will be behind the plate in Baltimore sooner rather than later.

It's been a tale of two decades at the position for the O's. The 2000s saw names like Charles Johnson, Brook Fordyce and Geronimo Gil, while the 2010s brought stability in the form of a top-five overall draft pick who quickly became the most anticipated prospect in team history.

Here are the top contenders at catcher, in chronological order.

The Contenders

Javy Lopez (2004-06)

Lopez came to Baltimore in the exciting 2003 offseason. The Orioles added him along with veteran stars Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro. Lopez had just crushed a career-high 43 home runs in Atlanta the year before, finishing fourth in the National League in bombs and fifth in MVP voting.

It was hoped that Lopez would bring more success to the position than the Orioles had seen since Chris Hoiles, and while his debut season was a success - Lopez hit a home run on the first pitch he saw in Baltimore, an exciting first impression - he never replicated his success in Atlanta and was out of baseball after 2006.

Ramon Hernandez (2006-08)

Hernandez never made an All-Star team in Baltimore or brought much flash behind the plate, but he was a reliable contributor for three seasons. Considering the dearth of talent at the position in other parts of the decade, that small degree of stability is enough to warrant consideration here.

His best season was 2006, when he hit a career-high 23 home runs with a .275 batting average in his debut season in Baltimore. His OPS fell by more than 100 points the following two years, and in 2009 he moved on to Cincinnati.

The writing was on the wall for Hernandez when it became clear who the catcher of the future was.

Matt Wieters (2009-16)

Chuck Norris wears Matt Wieters pajamas. Sliced bread is actually the greatest thing since Matt Wieters. When Matt Wieters is hungry, he snacks on batting doughnuts.

These are just a few examples from the now-defunct Matt Wieters Facts website, dedicated to the greatness of the most highly-rated prospect in Orioles history. The hype surrounding Wieters was neverending from the moment he signed the then-highest bonus in Orioles draft history in 2007.

Wieters was billed as a catcher who could do it all. He was supposed to hit for average and power, frame pitchers better than anybody and had a cannon for an arm. He was Adley Rutschman before Adley Rutschman, and his talents shined in Baltimore for eight largely enjoyable seasons.

While the bat never fully came around - he hit .250 over eight years with Baltimore and never more than 23 home runs in a season - his fielding was superb and his leadership highly valued. He was at the center of several successful playoff teams, quickly becoming one of the most recognizable Orioles of the decade.

The Winner

Starting off with a no-brainer, the Best Oriole of the Century at catcher is Matt Wieters. It was never going to be anyone else.

Longevity alone give Wieters a huge leg up on the competition here. He played 882 games in Baltimore, more than Lopez and Hernandez combined (712). Wieters is also most closely associated with the Orioles while Lopez (Atlanta) and Hernandez (Oakland) are more closely thought of in other uniforms.

Wieters' best season by WAR (5.2 in 2011) also tops Lopez's (4.8 in 2004) and Hernandez's (4.2 in 2006). Team success also weighs heavily in Wieters' favor - no other catcher was atop the team's depth chart during any of the Orioles' winning seasons this century.

It's impossible to overstate just how much hype surrounded Wieters' arrival in 2009. When he was drafted out of Georgia Tech in 2007, he had as much pedigree as any player to ever enter the organization. Impossible expectations may lead some casual fans to consider his tenure a disappointment - he never became [Minnesota Twins catcher Joe] Mauer with power - but Wieters made four All-Star Games and won two Gold Gloves, while solidifying a position that desperately needed it.

He was one of the faces of the 2012-16 Orioles that led the American League in wins, and he is the easy choice as catcher of the century in Baltimore. 

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One year ago today, Adley Rutschman became the face of the Orioles' rebuild

One year ago today, Adley Rutschman became the face of the Orioles' rebuild

The Orioles officially got a face of the rebuild one year ago today. 

Adley Rutschman, the former Oregon State catcher, was selected first overall by the Orioles on June 3, 2019, which was the first pick of the team’s multi-year rebuild. 

A switch-hitting catcher, the former College World Series Most Outstanding Player hit .408 and .411 in back-to-back seasons as a Beaver. In each of his last two seasons, his on-base percentage was over .505. His OPS in 2018 and 2019 were 1.133 and 1.327, respectively. 

In his final season in Corvallis, he hit 17 home runs and had 76 hits in 57 games played. He also walked 76 times and struck out just 38 times.

The sixth catcher to go first overall, and the first since Joe Mauer in 2001, he was the first ever selection of general manager Mike Elias as the Orioles began their rebuild toward contention once again.

“I think just to go No. 1 overall is an honor and a tribute to all the people who’ve shaped me into who I am today,” Rutschman told NBC Sports Washington that night. “Just to be able to do that for the people around me, my friends and family, to be the first one for Baltimore is truly a special honor.”

Rutschman played in 37 games after he was drafted for Delmarva, Aberdeen and the Gulf-Coast Orioles, where he slashed .254/.351/.423 and hit four home runs. His fielding percentage was .976 and he tallied 150 putouts. 

He’s been compared to Mauer and San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey in the past, a fact not lost on Rutschman himself.

“It’s an honor,” Rutschman said. “Those guys are phenomenal players, phenomenal athletes, and a lot of them are phenomenal humans. So to be talked about in that same comparison is very special.”

Rutschman will be joined by the Orioles eventual second overall pick in a week, but make no mistake, Rutschman is the face of the rebuild. 

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Orioles in statement: 'We are committed to advocate for the change our country needs'

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Orioles in statement: 'We are committed to advocate for the change our country needs'

The Orioles were one of many teams to release a statement about protests and the Black Lives Matter movement across the country late Tuesday, as nearly every professional sports team has in the last two days.

“Nearly six decades ago, at another low point in our country’s ongoing struggle to understand and rectify the racial injustice our fellow Americans have endured since the inception of our nation, the author James Baldwin warned, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,’” the statement began. 

The Orioles statement came amidst a flurry of statements released by MLB teams in the late afternoon.

“Today, as our friends and neighbors experience the same mistreatment of generations ago in the form of engrained, unyielding and institutionally-discriminatory systems that deny justice and equality and provide in their place a steady supply of brutalizing misconduct, compounded in some cases by voices that fan the flames of violence and racism, it is imperative that we face the past and present,” the statement continued. 

The statement concluded with the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” one of the only team-released statements to reference the specific movement. 

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