The first time Matt Wieters ever took the field in an Orioles uniform, a rainbow appeared over the Warehouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I was there. I saw it. This was the great omen for Wieters, the auspicious sign that he would be the rainbow for the Orioles franchise, bringing something beautiful out of the torrential rain that had, at that point, been falling for over a decade.
The story of Wieters' Orioles career ever since has been one of never quite meeting those lofty expectations. Even in the 2015 season, which figures to be his last as an Oriole, there was something of a high bar set for him and he simply never came close to doing what we were led to believe that he could do.
That process started last season, when his season ended due to a need for Tommy John surgery. Starting from the day of the surgery we heard all about how the recovery time for catchers would be less; Wieters was initially expected to be out for nine months. Nine months on from mid-June is mid-March, which gave the idea that the O's were expecting him for Opening Day.
Through spring training this charade was maintained even as he went completely hitless while working as a designated hitter. What's more, the very next day after his catching debut, he was shut down due to what was termed tendinitis. That was a mere three weeks shy of Opening Day. For all of that early optimism, it was June before we ended up seeing Wieters playing in Orioles games again.
Wieters returns with a hot bat
The 2014 season was an abbreviated one for Wieters due to that surgery, but it was one in which he turned in his best numbers at the plate, by far. That was an .839 OPS over 26 games. Maybe we never should have gotten excited over 26 games. Wieters has had good months before - and particularly good beginnings to seasons before. In his career, March/April is his second-best month by OPS, sinking through the summer months, then peaking, for some reason, in September/October.
Given that Wieters has always tended to start off hot, perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise when, starting with his June 5 debut, he ripped off a hot ten games. His return came after missing the first 53 O's games. That first game back saw Wieters go 2-3 with a double and an RBI sacrifice fly. He had hits in the first four games in which he played and after he had played in ten games (really, eight starts) he was sitting pretty with a 1.095 OPS.
That is an even smaller sample size than the 26 games that excited us from last year. It was only 34 plate appearances. Enough to get everybody's hopes up that Wieters was here to turn in the contract year of all contract years, setting the Orioles up to get, if nothing else, a compensatory draft pick when he leaves.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, after those first ten games, Wieters could not maintain anything close to a hot pace. Over the following two months, a period of 56 games for Wieters that spanned June 19-September 19, his batting line was a paltry .231/.280/.332. That's a .612 OPS over a two month span. That low OPS came in spite of a .300 BABIP, meaning it's not very likely he can blame any bad luck for the cold stretch.
In the vast majority of the games over this slump, Wieters was batting 4th or 5th. Not much mystery the O's offense was struggling heavily at times in this stretch.
When you're still rehabbing in the big leagues
It's not fair to pin all of that struggle on Wieters, of course, if only because he wasn't playing every day. That is also part of the Wieters story in 2015: The way that the Orioles and the media contingent acted like there was nothing at all amiss with the fact that, over the four months Wieters was active, he only caught consecutive games on consecutive days a total of four times. Three of these four times came in September or October.
When he was playing, it's not like he looked entirely like the Wieters whose catching was the biggest strength of his game, either. The concept of pitch framing - or as players seem to like to euphemistically say, "presenting" or "revealing" strikes - is an annoying one generally, one that could be solved by getting better umpires. Absent that development, it's a real part of the game today. Among players who received at least 4,000 pitches this year - Wieters, catching about a third of the O's games, caught 4,023 - Wieters was the second-worst framer in the game.
Other areas of his defensive capabilities seemed to have suffered as well. Pitch blocking is another important thing for catchers to be able to do, getting in front of errant pitches to stop them from turning into wild pitches that cost the team a base. A wild pitch may not be a catcher's fault, but strong catchers may prevent many of them.
Consider that in the 2013 season, when Wieters caught 1,201 innings, he was behind the dish for 28 wild pitches, about one every 43 innings. In 2015, where Wieters only caught 485.1 innings, he was behind the plate for 19 wild pitches, one every 26 innings. That's roughly the difference between a wild pitch every five games and a wild pitch every three games.
Once, Wieters was far better than the average catcher at throwing out baserunners. When he threw out 39% of would-be basestealers in the 2012 season, his best number, the league was only throwing out 25% of runners. In Wieters' limited 2015 action, he threw out 31% of runners, though the league average increased to 32%. So really, he can't even hang his hat any more on the one thing where he was better than everybody else.
To QO or not to QO: That is the question
All of this adds up to the heartburn-inducing question for the O's: Do you give Wieters the qualifying offer? That will be for a one-year, $15.8 million salary in 2016. No player has taken the offer to date. It seems unlikely a Scott Boras client would take one.
But, given how Wieters did not distinguish himself this season, might he consider it too tempting to resist? He might decide that he can use the 2016 season to showcase his talents in a way that his surgery recovery did not allow him to do in 2015. The Orioles may not be able to afford to take the chance of Wieters taking the offer. A 100 OPS+ catcher who is average at throwing out runners and below average at other defensive aspects is not worth that.
By the way, Wieters only had a 100 OPS+ because he raised his OPS by 42 points over his final three games, time in which the other team, a playoff team, had nothing to play for and did not appear to be trying too hard.
If a full offseason to prepare for baseball without having to worry specifically about the Tommy John recovery is beneficial to Wieters, it could be that him taking the QO would not be the worst thing in the world. That's a big if, though, and so a big risk for the O's to offer one. If he takes it, perhaps it would pay off, although it probably rules out the Orioles re-signing Chris Davis or any other remotely big free agent regardless. That could also end up flushing away more than 10% of next year's payroll before anything else happens.
Once, the prospect of Wieters one day leaving the Orioles in free agency was among the most depressing things that O's fans could contemplate. Now it seems a worse scenario has emerged: Wieters sucking up payroll while lingering around. He's never been as good as we hoped he would be, which doesn't mean he's been bad. It doesn't mean he deserves any more chances, either.