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The Orioles face a tough choice with Matt Wieters

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To QO, or not to QO? That is the question. It’s not an easy one to answer, but the O’s will have to figure it out for Matt Wieters soon.

Matt Wieters hits a home run for the Orioles in possibly his final regular season game with the team.
Although this picture doesn’t look like it, Matt Wieters just hit a home run here.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

One of the biggest questions the Orioles had to answer for themselves heading into last offseason was whether or not they would extend the qualifying offer to Matt Wieters in hopes of getting a draft pick if he leaves elsewhere.

A year later, as a result of Wieters surprisingly accepting that offer, becoming one of the first players to ever do so, the Orioles find themselves facing the exact same question. Should they make Wieters a qualifying offer? If he accepts this time, he will cost them about $17 million for 2017.

The landscape has changed heading into this offseason. For one thing, ongoing contract negotiations between MLB and the players union mean that the qualifying offer may not even survive into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. So all of this is assuming qualifying offers remain a part of the picture. Maybe they won’t, but hey, it’s an off day in the middle of the World Series and there’s nothing else to talk about, so let’s just go with it.

The fact that it’s even a question of whether or not the O’s should make a QO to Wieters is disappointing enough. If Wieters had performed undeniably well in 2016, then the O’s could make him the offer and even if he surprised them by accepting it again, that would not be so bad.

Instead, Wieters turned in what was, relative to league average, one of the worst offensive seasons of his career. Wieters now has not posted a full season as a better than league average hitter since 2012. If he accepted the QO last year in hopes of using 2016 as a platform to launch into a bigger contract, that was a failure. No one should or will get excited about a 30-year-old who just batted .243/.302/.409 in 124 games.

Or is that really so bad? Maybe, for a catcher, it’s not. Across all of MLB, the average for the catcher position was .242/.309/.392, so Wieters got on base slightly less than the average catcher and hit for a bit more power.

That average counts backups who are generally poor hitters, though. Of the 16 starting catchers with at least 400 PA, Wieters is tied for 13th in wRC+. So he’s good enough to play often, which is worth something. He’s just not better than actual good-hitting catchers.

If you expand that to catchers with at least 250 PA, Wieters is 19th out of 35. Not great, but he would have been a big improvement even on a few 2016 postseason contenders, like the Tigers, Mariners, and Mets, all of whom gave a lot of playing time to poor-performing backstops. Other contenders like the Astros and Washington have pending free agents at the position.

By the way, the team whose catchers had the absolute worst performance as hitters, the Indians, is presently in the World Series. They batted .185/.244/.320, by far the worst in MLB. And one of their poor-hitting catchers, Roberto Perez, homered twice in Game 1. Go figure.

That’s a lot of talk about hitting when there’s a lot more to being a catcher than that. A catcher needs to have a strong arm and quick throwing technique to control the running game, agility to block errant pitches to prevent runners from advancing, and, because umpires are flawed humans, the ability to catch borderline pitches in such a way that they look like strikes even if they aren’t.

All of the above are things that can be quantified to some extent. Whether publicly available metrics for catcher defense tell us much is a different story - and pitch framing, which Wieters struggles with, is not included in those metrics in any case.

The public metrics also do not include more ephemeral concepts like whether or not Wieters “calls a good game,” something that most of us are not qualified to evaluate.

Add it all up and Wieters was rated at 1.7 Wins Above Replacement with both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference this season. That’s not star-level performance, but it’s solid - about $13.7 million in value, according to Fangraphs. That’s less than his $15.8 million in salary, though it’s not in wasted money territory.

In short, Wieters was fine. Flawed, but better than a lot of alternatives, including his own backups. Caleb Joseph contributed -0.9 WAR in a third as much playing time.

Joseph’s 2016 season is a reminder that sometimes the replacement is not even good enough to be a 0.0 WAR player. To the Orioles, that makes the idea of Wieters even more valuable, perhaps enough to tempt them into extending the qualifying offer again.

The free agent market for catchers, you may have heard, is thin, and thinner still with Washington’s Wilson Ramos, a pending free agent, tearing his ACL in the last week of the regular season. On the other hand, we’ve heard this story before, one year ago:

If the Wieters camp had really seen him as “a one-of-a-kind item in a limited catching market,” I think he would have cashed out from the O’s and cashed in on the free agent market. It’s telling that he did not.

The market for Wieters, tied to draft pick compensation, could well have turned into one of those “sign after spring training bargain basement” deals - and his 2016 performance is likely not going to have done much to make that any different this year, even with a paucity of available free agents.

A year ago, after the Orioles had made a QO to Wieters but before he accepted it, the Orioles - or at least manager Buck Showalter - looked to be hoping that Wieters would accept.

At the time, I thought that was not something they should have been hoping because I made the assumption, based on the O’s payroll history that Wieters taking the QO would torpedo the O’s being able to spend on free agents.

The Orioles went on to re-sign Chris Davis and Darren O’Day, nearly signed Dexter Fowler, signed Yovani Gallardo and Pedro Alvarez, and, at the trade deadline, added a few million more in acquiring Steve Pearce and Wade Miley. Concerns about the 2016 payroll seemed to be unfounded. Whether all that money was spent wisely is another question for another day, but there’s no doubt they spent big.

Still, unless a similar-sized, equally-unexpected payroll boost is in the cards, the largest risk in the Orioles offering a QO to Wieters and him accepting it may not be his presence on the 2017 roster. It may be that $17.2 million figure hitting the payroll.

The Orioles, according to MLB Trade Rumors estimates of arbitration numbers, are already committed to about $155 million in 2017 salary. That’s already about $8 million more than their record 2016 payroll and that’s without filling any of the roster spots of departing free agents.

Wieters taking the QO would kick them up to around $172 million with the O’s still needing to find a right fielder as well as a platoon partner for Hyun Soo Kim.

Should fans even be worried about that? It’s not our money. It’s the ownership’s money. Then again, in some ways, it is our money. The payroll increase of this past season did get passed along to fans in the form of about a 25% ticket price increase.

If the O’s getting stuck with Wieters after offering a QO means another price hike, that’s not a good thing. If it means they have to make some kind of ill-advised trade where they dump a promising prospect in order to clear a bad starting pitcher contract like Gallardo’s or Ubaldo Jimenez’s, that would be even worse.

Letting Wieters walk is a risk that the Orioles may not be able to afford. Although they have a nice catching prospect in Chance Sisco, he’s not expected to be ready for MLB action by Opening Day 2017. Joseph and Francisco Pena does not seem like a duo that will be acceptable for any length of time.

The Orioles are going to need a catcher regardless, and the idea of doing nothing to keep Wieters only to sign a cheap catcher who won’t be all that much better than Joseph/Pena isn’t very appealing.

However, extending the QO to Wieters could turn out to be a risk that the Orioles can’t afford to take, either. Perhaps the whole QO system will be blasted out of the next CBA and the choice will be taken out of their hands, but if it’s not, the O’s are going to have to decide which price they want to pay: The price for keeping Wieters, or the price for letting him go.