In the midst of his best full-season campaign since 2011, Matt Wieters was a deserving All-Star for the Baltimore Orioles. Now over two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Wieters is batting .258/.310/.418 on the year with nine home runs and 37 driven in. His numbers are slightly lower after a slow start to the month of July. Behind the plate, Wieters has also thrown out eight runners, and is close to the league-average caught-stealing rate. As was the case in 2015, when he returned to the field in June, the Orioles have been cautious with their backstop’s playing time, and he has started only 65 percent of the team’s games. If the current trend continues, Wieters is on pace to start only 108 games this year.
Simply put, if the Orioles are to maintain their tenuous grip on first place, Wieters must be pushed in the second half of the season.
Before the return of the All-Star catcher last season, Caleb Joseph filled in admirably. After being pressed into service in 2014 and struggling, Joseph managed to carry a .234 batting average for 100 games and get within shouting distance of a league average OPS+. This year, Joseph has struggled, and his OPS+ of 10 is comically bad. He has yet to drive in a run despite playing in 26 games, and has only two extra-base hits. Defense is Joseph’s calling card, but it is hard to write off how bad he has been at the plate this year. To add insult to injury, Joseph missed several weeks after suffering a painful, foul-ball related injury. Let’s just say Joseph has become one of the strongest endorsers for the protective cup industry.
It would be easier for the Orioles to accept that Wieters’ playing time must be closely monitored in order to protect the health of his elbow if Joseph were producing like he did last season. There is not really a better option in the minors, as Francisco Pena is a journeyman who batted .219 when replacing Joseph. Top prospect Chance Sisco is not ready for the big leagues, and the Orioles would not consider calling him up to sit on the bench. It really is time for Wieters to shoulder a full workload for the remainder of the season.
In December, Wieters shocked the Orioles by accepting the $15.8 million qualifying offer. He did so because the concerns tied to his surgically-repaired elbow severely limited his chances at securing a long-term contract on the free-agent market. How much has he done to ease fears over his health by playing in less than two of three games? By offering Wieters the qualifying offer, the Orioles did tip their hand that a serious push for a re-signing was unlikely (that and Dan Duquette’s awkward skirting of questions related to Wieters at Fanfest a few weeks after the decision). With Chris Tillman, Manny Machado, and Jonathan Schoop needing to be paid, and team payroll already at record levels, Wieters does not figure in this winter’s plans either. For their nearly $16 million, the Orioles should feel able to compel Wieters to push through a little bit of pain and inflammation.
The Orioles can scarcely afford to trot out an automatic out at catcher at least twice a week, and unfortunately that’s what Joseph has become this season. Runs are at a premium for this team, especially since it is unlikely an impact arm will be acquired. There is very little precedent for a catcher going through and recovering from Tommy John surgery, but at some point, Wieters has to take on a full workload; just like any pitcher does who goes through the procedure. The Orioles do still need to keep an eye on their catcher’s health, but must err on the side of being overaggressive. Mid-week days off need to be minimized, and Wieters needs to find out how much his arm can handle. Both sides can benefit from Wieters playing like a full-time catcher during the second half. The lineup remains strong one to nine most days of the week, and Wieters can begin the push towards a three- or four-year deal this winter. Throwing caution to the wind could be the difference between winning the division or missing the playoffs by a few games.