Zaun onboard to mentor Wieters
Until top prospect is ready, veteran will be club's No. 1 catcher
BALTIMORE -- The catching picture is finally complete. The Orioles announced the signing of free-agent backstop Gregg Zaun on Thursday to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million with a club option for 2010.
Zaun is expected to start for the season's first month before assuming an active mentor role for top prospect Matt Wieters.
"We're looking for a catcher that can handle our pitching staff that knows the league and knows the division," said Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. "He's a former Oriole, a switch-hitter and gives us some flexibility. He understands the role that we're looking for and has embraced it."
Zaun, who played most recently for the Blue Jays, will be returning to the organization that drafted and developed him. The veteran was originally acquired as a 17th-round Draft pick in 1989, and he made his big league debut with Baltimore in 1997. Zaun, the nephew of Orioles icon Rick Dempsey, has played in more than 1,100 Major League games.
The Orioles value his longevity and veteran status and hope he'll be able to work well with Wieters, who ripped through his first full professional season and appears to be close to cementing a big league job. Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, Wieters will likely come up in mid-May to assume the starting job.
And that's not the only place Zaun can make an impact. Yes, the Orioles expect him to teach Wieters the ropes and shepherd him through his first tour of the American League, but they also hope that Zaun will play a key role in helping to develop their young pitchers, whom MacPhail has centered his rebuilding project around.
Baltimore's current rotation is only two men deep, and MacPhail is not necessarily confident that he'll ink any more veteran starters this winter. Furthermore, he's completely frank about the fact that he expects his next competitive starting staff to come from the array of upper-level pitching prospects within his organization.
"Eventually, the reinforcements are going to come from within, from that group of young pitchers," said MacPhail of his talent stock. "Until that group can matriculate to the point where they're close to the Major League level, there's not going to be a real solution. You can try to Band-Aid it, and you might be more successful some years more than others, but eventually, the way you're going to overcome the issue ... is having greater depth in the system."
Zaun, who has served as a backup for most of his career, has had an on-base percentage of .340 or better in each of the past five seasons. The Orioles will likely stage a Spring Training competition between Chad Moeller, Robby Hammock and Guillermo Quiroz to be his initial backup before help arrives in the form of Wieters.
And if the Orioles like the job that Zaun does, they can bring him back fairly easily. Baltimore holds a team option for $2 million for the 2010 season, and Zaun can only void that option if he's traded before November. Otherwise, the Orioles hold the power to either extend him or buy out the rest of his contract for $500,000.
In order to make room for Zaun on the 40-man roster, the Orioles had to designate Oscar Salazar for assignment. The veteran infielder batted .284 with five home runs in a brief audition for Baltimore last season, and MacPhail said that he hopes to retain his services and allow him to compete for a reserve job during the exhibition season.
"That was not a pleasant aspect, having to do that when we signed Zaun," MacPhail said. "But Oscar's going to be 30 in April and he's out of options. Again, it comes down to [whether we carry] 12 pitchers or 13 pitchers. We're hopeful. We've already signed him to a 2009 contract, and we'll hopefully get him through waivers and bring him into camp."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.