The Orioles had the fifth selection in the first round of the 2007 draft. The best pitcher was David Price, selected #1 overall by the Rays. The best position player was a catcher from Georgia Tech by the name of Matt Wieters. A Scott Boras client, he was hailed (by his advisor) as a "once in a generation" talent, viewed as a tough sign and he fell to the Orioles. He signed so close to the deadline that the news did not come out until after the deadline. The prospect hailed as "Joe Mauer with power" was in the fold with Baltimore for a $6 million signing bonus.
Because he signed so late, he did not debut until the 2008 season, when he started out with the high-A Frederick Keys. He was named the Carolina League Player of the Week in his first week as a professional. We were all tantalized by his potential in that monster 2008 season, when, split almost evenly between Frederick and Double-A Bowie, Wieters batted a combined .355/.454/.600.
Matt Wieters Facts, exaggerated feats of greatness such as, "Matt Wieters took batting practice. There were no survivors," were shared across the blogO'sphere, with their own dedicated website helmed by my college pals Daniel Moroz (Camden Crazies) and Ian Oland (now runs a Capitals blog, Russian Machine Never Breaks). The sky was the limit.
Going into the 2009 season, Baseball America named Wieters the #1 prospect in all of baseball. He would be turning 23 years old during May of that season. Catchers on the Orioles major league roster were Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller. The question was not if Wieters would be called up, but when. Should he open the season on the roster? Should he be held back until the Orioles could get an extra year of team control, and perhaps even avoid the expense of Wieters as a Super Two player?
In May of that year, with Wieters hitting .305/.387/.504 in 39 games at Triple-A Norfolk, then-GM-type Andy MacPhail made the decision to call up Wieters. He announced the call-up on the MASN broadcast of a Tuesday game that drew 10,130 paid attendance at Camden Yards. The call-up would be happening days later, debuting Wieters for a Friday game against Detroit. There was rain before the game and a rainbow sprung up over the Warehouse as Wieters took the field for the game. I saw it happen.
He rewarded us with a .288/.340/.412 batting line in 96 games as a rookie, a .753 OPS that hinted at even more as he adjusted to the major leagues.
Four years and over 500 games later, Wieters' career MLB OPS sits at .746. His career high in OPS was a .778 in 2011, a season in which his brilliant defense behind the plate helped him to a 4.7 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement - a very good player, and, at the age of 25, still with hope of improving. Instead, that has been his career peak at the plate.
While he's improved his caught-stealing percentage every year, he's never topped the .340 OBP of his rookie year and never slugged above .450. He is not Mauer with power. He is not even Mauer, whose lowest single-season batting average is .287, which Wieters only exceeded in his rookie year.
The contract decision set in motion by MacPhail in 2009 is now closer every day. Wieters has two more seasons where the Orioles control him, and after the 2015 season, he is set to become a free agent. The prospect once filled us with dread, with sad ideas of the Yankees or the Red Sox swooping in and plucking two-time-MVP-winning Wieters away from the small-market Orioles with a nine-figure contract.
That Wieters never materialized. What the Orioles have instead is a two-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glover whose value to the team is wrapped up solely in his continuing to be a catcher. He remains a Boras client, meaning that the idea of extending him is still remote. It was once a certainty that losing Wieters would be depressing. Now the only depressing part is what might have been.
Supposing Wieters was willing to extend with the Orioles, would you want to extend him? If he wasn't, would you want to retain his services as a free agent?
Fans, including myself, have a tendency to be disappointed by Wieters because he never lived up to the hype. Buster Posey, the hot catching prospect of the 2008 draft, did. He was selected one pick after Brian Matusz, and never seriously considered by the Orioles because they already had Wieters lighting up the minors, and why have two catching prospects?
Getting caught up in that disappointment, it's too easy to lose sight of the fact that the Orioles still have a solid player at a position of scarcity. In all of MLB, there are only 14 catchers who have been good/healthy enough to qualify for the batting title (3.1 PA/team game). In fWAR, Wieters ranks 6th among these.
He's squarely behind the likes of Yadier Molina, Mauer, and Posey, and far superior to the likes of Miguel Montero and Ryan Doumit. He has thrown out the fourth-most runners, nabbing 41% of base-stealers - a mark that would be even higher if umpires actually called out some runners who were out. He's played in the second-most games. He has never been on the disabled list. He is a markedly better option at catcher for at least half of MLB. He is a significantly better option than anything else the Orioles currently have or are likely to trade for or develop in time for the 2016 season, when Wieters will probably be gone.
A lot can happen in two years of baseball, but until something does happen, the position of catcher in 2016 is one that, offensively, could be as much of a black hole for the Orioles as designated hitter is this year.
None of the above necessarily means that the right play for the Orioles would be to pay whatever it takes to keep Wieters in Birdland.
Wieters will turn 30 in the first year of whatever contract he signs next. If he eschews more years with the Orioles, a desperate team might overpay him in dollars, years, or both. He has been durable in his career so far, but will that continue after two more years of wear and tear on a 6'5" frame behind the plate?
What about his bat? If a strong second half - when Wieters has a .788 OPS in his career - saves his numbers this year, that still most likely means his pinnacle is the .778 OPS of 2011. Will there be a decline trending with his bat before he becomes a free agent? If not, how long afterwards will it take before any aspect of his game deteriorates enough to make his contract a regret for whatever team might sign him?
Posey's contract with the Giants is good for an average annual value (AAV) of about $18.5 million. Mauer gets $23 million from the Twins each year through 2018, but this is nuts, and also something they "had" to do for their hometown star. Wieters is not to the Orioles what either of these guys are to their respective franchises.
Molina might represent the best contract comparison for Wieters: he's on a 5-year, $75 million deal that runs from his age 30-34 seasons. He is an interesting case as well because he blossomed as a hitter in his age 28 season, crossing .800 OPS for the first time in that, his eighth big-league season. Before that, his career OPS was .688. He followed that up by putting up even better numbers in 2012, increasing his on-base percentage and slugging significantly. He was always good defensively, which is also the case for Wieters.
Molina signed that contract prior to the 2012 season, meaning that when he signed it, he'd had exactly one season as better than a league-average hitter - 2011. If he was worth $15 million annually prior to 2012, what does that mean Wieters would be worth prior to 2016? His best season is 36 points of OPS below Molina's, and he is not trending upward at this time, or even holding steady. Orioles fans should be so lucky to see Wieters suddenly surge offensively as did Molina.
If such an improvement in hitting is coming for Wieters, it doesn't look to be happening this year. Taking that in mind, as well as steady salary inflation, I would say that a contract to Wieters should come in at a $13 million AAV. Perhaps Dan Duquette could call up Boras in the offseason and try to settle the negotiations in the range of 5 years, $65 million. That would buy out three years of free agency, lock him up through age 32, and set Wieters up for life financially regardless of performance or injury.
Wieters could probably get more than that on the open market, given the dearth of even average catching talent in MLB at any given time. If he says no thanks, which he probably would, then good luck to him. The Orioles can go through the arbitration process for two more seasons, offer him a qualifying offer for 2016 that he would probably decline, and then let him go where the dollars flow and collect a draft pick as compensation.
Wieters is good, but not great. The O's can pay him to be good, which I think he would be for the life of the contract, but not to be the star that he is not.
Perhaps he would end up going to New York or Boston after all. The 2009 versions of all of us would be crushed by that, but we were fans of a losing team and a losing organization then. The Orioles are better now. The playoff and winning season droughts are over. The days of getting overly attached to, and overpaying, players can be over.