Matt Wieters is coming back on a one-year deal. Earlier this afternoon, Wieters became just the second player to accept the qualifying offer. The All-Star catcher will make $15.8 million for the 2016 season, and is then free to test free agency again. This is not how the Baltimore Orioles’ front office would have envisioned their first real week of the Hot Stove season. Wieters accepting the qualifying offer should not be incredibly surprising, but what does it mean for the Orioles?
The Orioles can spin the news anyway they want to, but if management is truly honest behind closed doors, no one wanted Wieters to take the bait. It’s not that Wieters is a bad player to have back in the clubhouse, far from it actually, he’s just not $13 million per year better than his backup Caleb Joseph. In his first full year with the club, Joseph was a 2.2 WAR player. Wieters, coming back from his Tommy John surgery, was a 0.8 WAR player. Wieters used to be known for his defense behind the plate, but was a 0.0 dWAR player to Joseph’s 1.6 dWAR. The surgically repaired elbow of the three-time All-Star did not really seem to affect his ability to throw out baserunners, but he was still unable to catch consecutive games. Wieters is slightly better offensively than Joseph, but the backup was beginning to make big strides at the plate in 2015. For a team that has to build a roster with a budget, Joseph would have been a fine option to start at catcher. Ryan Lavarnway, he’s not.
For Wieters, this is the right decision. The market for catchers was going to be very limited to begin with this offseason. The only team that seemed a lock to be interested in signing Wieters was the Atlanta Braves, and they are in full-on rebuild mode now. The Los Angeles Angels could have been a fit, but if only one team really needs you, how much leverage does a player have, especially with big medical red flags all over his file? None. Wieters would have gotten a two or three-year deal, worth far less annually than the $15.8 million he will now earn in 2016. Next year needs to be spent proving he can either catch everyday again or play a competent first base. As it currently stands, Wieters is not a $16 million per year first baseman. He must get back behind the plate for 120-plus games to drive his value back up to what it would have been before the injury.
The decision to take the qualifying offer throws a huge monkey wrench into the Orioles’ plans. The money that is now going to Wieters could have been used to re-sign Darren O’Day or a mid-level outfielder like Denard Span or Dexter Fowler. Manny Machado‘s extension could have been worked on as well. This decision is unlikely to jam up the Orioles’ pursuit of Chris Davis, as the $20-25 million to re-sign Davis should have already been budgeted. The Orioles were always going to spend the money that will now go to Wieters, it just wasn’t intended for him.
Of course, there’s always the possibility the Orioles will look at the 2016 salary of Matt Wieters as a one-off cost that will not affect their decisions about 2017 and 2018 payroll. That would be the wise thing to do. No team has yet been burned by the qualifying offer, so teams like the Houston Astros, who now have to pay Colby Rasmus, and the Orioles, will present an interesting test case. If Baltimore is serious about continuing to field a winning team, the front office and ownership must spend as if Wieters is not coming back. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the Orioles are far enough away from the luxury tax threshold that this can be worked around. It will all fall upon Peter Angelos to stay aggressive even after the unexpected decision. The Orioles played with fire in offering a player like Matt Wieters a qualifying offer. The team got burned, and now it’s time to rebound.