For Matt Wieters, last season’s Tommy John surgery could not have come at a worse time. Instead of putting up monster numbers and continuing to show that he is one of the best defensive catchers in the league, Wieters’ walk year has been spent rehabbing his surgically repaired eblow, regaining his swing, and getting used to playing baseball on consecutive days. It has not gone well. The Baltimore Orioles’ seven-year veteran has produced only slightly higher than his career lows in all major offensive categories. In 67 games, he has only six home runs, and his .385 slugging percentage is the lowest since his first full season in the Major Leagues. On the defensive side, Wieters has performed below replacement level (-0.1 dWAR), and there have been questions about his ability to handle the pitching staff.
Prior to the injury, Wieters, a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover, would have been in line for a contract very similar to the $85 million deal Brian McCann got with the New York Yankees or the $82 million contract Russell Martin signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. Wieters had very comparable career numbers prior to the injury. He had also looked to be making big strides offensively in 2014 before going down, batting .308 with five home runs and 18 RBI in his first 26 games.
Now, Wieters is at the mercy of the market. It’s very hard to imagine a team being willing to plop down $80 million for a catcher with diminishing on-base skills and an injury history. Wieters will be 30 in May next season. A five year contract will likely see him reduced to a first baseman by the start of year four. His career production to date does not indicate that he would be worth $16 million per season as a first baseman. The majority of Wieters’ value is tied up in the fact that he provides good offensive production and power from a premium position.
The best case scenario for Wieters is to receive a qualifying offer from the Orioles. It is even harder to envision a team being willing to commit to losing a draft pick to sign Wieters. A National League team is unlikely to gamble on Wieters, as he will need to DH as he approaches age 34. A qualifying offer will net him close to $16 million for 2016. From there, Wieters can go about re-establishing himself as an everyday, consistent power threat.
Given a full offseason of health, Wieters should come back ready to produce in 2016. For pitchers, the recovery from Tommy John is all about one thing — throwing. For a position player, the effects are wildly different. A fielder has to rebuild strength to make all the throws, but also relearn his swing. Throw in the fact that Wieters is a switch hitter playing the most demanding position in the field, and you have all the makings of a very poor first season back. Batting left, Wieters’ injured elbow controls the bottom hand of the bat. When he flips around, it’s the top hand. The strength, flexibility, range of motion, and time in the cage lost to a major elbow injury has a significant impact on a batter’s swing. Then, you must consider the fact that Wieters is mostly playing every other day. With a full offseason of work focused on refining his swing and building strength, not rehab, Wieters should come back strong in 2016.
The Orioles are a team at a crossroads. Chris Davis, Wei-Yin Chen, Darren O’Day, and Wieters are all free agents, and the team also needs to sign at least one premiere starting pitcher if the Orioles are to continue matching pace with the Yankees and Blue Jays. Wieters will likely fall behind Davis, Chen, and an unnamed starting pitcher on the front office’s priority list. Caleb Joseph has proven this season that he is more than capable of hitting Major League pitching at a fraction of the cost. Joseph’s defense is better behind the plate, as is his ability to work with the pitching staff. Should Wieters return to the Orioles, he seems like a catcher/first base/DH hybrid.
Matt Wieters is extremely unlikely to get a long term deal from the Orioles. It’s doubtful the club would be willing to go beyond four years, but the same could be said about most other teams around the league. None of the big market teams are in need of a catcher at this point. The best case scenario for Wieters seems to be a one year return to Baltimore. The $16 million price tag for a qualifying offer should not scare the Orioles too much. The one year hit is not what would concern them when dealing with Wieters. With one more season in Baltimore, Wieters can prove that he is still capable of playing every day, hitting at a high level, while continuing to showcase his skills at first base on an occasional basis.
Matt Wieters needs the Orioles, but do they need him? That’s the $16 million question.