Matt Wieters will return to the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup this Thursday or Friday. The return of the All-Star catcher could not come at a better time, as the Orioles have lost three in a row to fall to 23-27. Caleb Joseph, who filled in for Wieters during his absence this season, struggled mightily during the month of May. After batting .327 in April, Joseph’s batting average fell to .208 in May. Joseph also saw his OPS drop from .910 in April to just .634 in May.
Getting at-bats from Wieters, who has a career slash line of .257/.320/.423, could massively help the Orioles going forward this season as Joseph regresses back to replacement-level status after a good month of April. Wieters was off to a very hot start last season prior to injuring his elbow. Through 26 games in 2014, Wieters had a career-high .308 batting average, five home runs, and 18 RBIs. His on-base and slugging numbers were also at career-high levels. It looked like Wieters was finally fulfilling the “Joe Mauer with power” comparisons that have dogged him since being drafted in 2007.
There is no denying that Wieters will help the Orioles’ offense, but he will complicate things as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery. Wieters is still not catching on back-to-back days. That means if the Orioles want to keep his bat in the lineup they will have to use him as the designated hitter. Here’s where it gets sticky.
Jimmy Paredes has been the Orioles’ primary designated hitter this season. He has also been the team’s most consistent hitter in what is looking like a breakout season. Paredes has gotten 129 of his 157 at-bats as a designated hitter. To keep his bat in the lineup, the Orioles will need to find a defensive position for him on days when Wieters cannot catch. Paredes has also been used at second base this season. He’s not really a great defensive second baseman, but can be hidden there until Jonathan Schoop returns. Perhaps by that time, Wieters will be back to catching every day. That would save the Orioles a lot of headaches.
Caleb Joseph will still be required to play quite frequently the rest of the season to save Wieters’ surgically repaired elbow. In split time with Nick Hundley last season, Joseph batted only .208 and couldn’t quite get on track with sporadic at-bats. I think Joseph, who has a career .268/.327/.427 in the minors, is a capable backup and not a total slouch at the plate like Ryan Lavarnway. He has shown he has the chops to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues, but how will he handle seeing live pitching only a few times a week? It didn’t work to well for him last season, and it may cause him to struggle the rest of this season.
There is also the small matter of getting Wieters back up to Major League speed. He has batted only .182 in his minor league rehab games, and went hitless in 23 Spring Training at-bats. The Orioles are already dealing with a struggling J.J. Hardy who is batting only .190 since returning from a shoulder injury. Waiting for Hardy to get rolling is one thing, but waiting for another starter to get on track could entirely drag down an Orioles’ lineup that slumped mightily in May. If the Orioles are going to crawl out of this four-game below .500 hole, they need their lineup firing on all cylinders.
Getting a three-time All-Star back in the lineup can only be viewed as a good thing, but with Matt Wieters there are a few caveats. The Orioles must figure out how to handle his playing time behind the plate. Jimmy Paredes must continue to get at-bats even if that means playing the field, and Caleb Joseph cannot turn into an automatic out when asked to play two or three times a week. Buck Showalter has managed his lineup as best he could be expected to with several All-Stars out this season. Managing Wieters’ return will be challenging, but there is no better manager in the game to creatively put together a lineup to get the most out of his catcher until he can be counted to be behind the dish every day.