On Monday, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the Baltimore Orioles have intentions to extend former 5th-overall pick Matt Wieters the $15.8M qualifying offer prior to the beginning of free agency.
Orioles intend to extend a qualifying offer to Matt Wieters, not surprisingly. He’ll be a one-of-a-kind item in a limited catching market.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 2, 2015
Wieters, a soon-to-be 30-year-old catcher, headlines a crop of peers that include Alex Avila, Dioner Navarro, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Chris Iannetta. It’s safe to say that of the available backstops, Wieters provides the highest all-around upside of this year’s class.
There had been speculation whether or not the Orioles would indeed offer Wieters the qualifying deal, given his injury history as well as his failure to live up to his “switch-hitting Joe Mauer” draft label. For the Orioles, extending Wieters the qualifying offer is not only a no-brainer, it’s just smart business.
Let’s say Wieters becomes the first player to accept the QO this offseason, choosing to remain with the Orioles through the 2016 season on a one-year, $15.8M deal. Well, the O’s would be paying a pretty penny for a career .258/.320/.423 hitter. However, Wieters, in his career, has averaged 21 HRs and 79 RBI every 162 games played, a unique trait for a position that is traditionally starved of offense. Wieters’ 91 dingers from 2010-15 are sixth-most among all catchers in that span, while his .171 ISO is fifth-best.
For Wieters, that includes only 101 games between 2014 and 2015, a result of Tommy John surgery on June 17 of 2014. Prior to being sidelined in May of that year, Wieters was off to a thundering start, hitting .308/.339/.500 with 5 HRs in only 26 games. It appeared that the former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket was on his way to finally living up to his superstar billing, but rare Tommy John surgery for a position player set his career’s upward trajectory to a grinding halt.
Having only played in 75 games in 2015, Wieters hit a middle-of-the-road .267/.319/.422 upon his return the Orioles’ lineup on June 5 of this season. His role was diminished to an every-other-day platoon with fellow catcher Caleb Joseph, as the Orioles made every attempt to ease Wieters back into a more consistent role.
As it stands, Wieters is somewhat of a question mark despite his previous production, but for the Orioles, he would certainly be motivated. The one-year deal would allow him to assert himself back into the Orioles’ lineup, knowing he would be allowed back into the open market as a 31-year-old with limited wear and tear at baseball’s positional equivalent of running back. From an organizational standpoint, the Orioles are still facing the very real possibility of losing home run king Chris Davis to the highest bidder, making Wieters’ bat a much-needed asset. Though Wieters, to my estimation is not a strong game-caller, he does have familiarity with the Orioles current stable of average starters, another plus for a team that will need all the help it can muster in 2016.
On the flip-side, if Wieters’ does not accept the qualifying offer (the more likely result being a client of Scott Boras), someone is surely to overpay for a catcher with real “ifs” to his game.
Though Wieters missed 73% of the Orioles’ games the past two seasons, leaving his knees intact for just a little while longer, he has never been the hitter the Orioles brass or fans thought he would be. Yes, the difficulty of juggling catching duties while also hitting big-league pitching is perhaps the most difficult task to be bestowed at any position in baseball, but Wieters’ massive draft hype and subsequent six years in Baltimore left much to be desired.
Wieters also built much of his success on his status as an elite defender. From 2009-2014, his 32.5% caught-stealing percentage helped to earn him Gold Gloves in 2011 and 2012, while also detracting opposing base-runners from stealing year-to-year. Tommy John surgery didn’t necessarily slow Wieters down after returning to the Orioles’ lineup as he caught 8 of 26 (30.7%) would-be base-stealers in 2015, but again, the threat of recurring issues for a player that throws the baseball 100+ times five of every seven days of the week is not something to take lightly.
The Orioles are in the driver’s seat when it comes to Wieters’ situation, because on both sides, there is a benefit. If he stays, the Orioles retain a player that will be looking to boost his value for next winter while also keeping a much-needed power bat. However, if he does depart to greener pastures, the Orioles, a franchise whose farm-system is without enough horses, would greatly benefit from the competitive balance pick to be used this June. If Russell Martin, a career .257/.353/.397 hitter prior to 2015, can garner an average annual value of $16.5M, Wieters is sure to see his share of suitors ready to match or exceed that price.
Baltimore has an incumbent catching duo of Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger available to mix-and-match both against righties and lefties and are both under team control until 2021 and 2019, respectively. They’re cheap, and while the Orioles would like to allocate $15M-$20M towards starting pitcher or another outfielder, Joseph and Clevenger’s flexibility at bargain prices only benefits the Orioles in 2016 and beyond.
For the O’s, Wieters was good, but never great, and the impending qualifying offer to be extended to him is nothing more than a formality.