The Baltimore Orioles All-Star catcher, Matt Wieters, is arbitration eligible for the first time in his career and my prediction is that he will earn somewhere between $3.5 and $4.2 million dollars. It’s possible that he could earn a bit more than the $4.2 million but I consider highly unlikely as his lack of big-time offensive production will hinder any increased monetary value through arbitration. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Wieters isn’t a capable offensive threat with some power – because he is.
But he’s an incredibly streaky hitter whose career high in batting average is .288, which he accomplished his rookie season while playing in just 96 games, and the closest he’s come to that number since was in 2011 when he batted .262. His rookie season is also the year he posted his highest on-base-percentage (.340) and this past season’s .329 mark is the closest he’s come to that since.
To prove my point about his streakiness let’s take a look at his month-by-month splits the past three seasons below:
As you can see, Wieters goes through periods where he’s one of the best hitting catchers in all of baseball and then gets into month-long slumps where the only thing of value he provides is his defense and ability to handle the pitching staff very well (which is still very valuable on its own). This isn’t something that’s just a one-year occurrence either as he’s been like this since he entered the league in 2010.
The long-held hope, as well as the ultimate belief by fans and scouts, was that Wieters would blossom into a huge star with his excellent defense, ability to control any team’s runners on the bases, and eventually his ability to become a consistent .300 hitter with power. After all, that is why he was given the nickname “Mauer With Power” by so many coming out of college and into the big leagues after spending just two short seasons (169 games and 693 plate appearances) in the minors.
Why wouldn’t we think that’s what he would become? He batted .343 with 32 homeruns over those 169 minor league games and everyone believed, myself included, that he would have had his first .300 and 30 + homerun season by now. Unfortunately the reality of the situation surrounding Wieters is that he’s accumulated over 2,000 plate appearances in 509 career games at the major league level and perhaps he is never going to become that offensive juggernaut, who can also play Gold Glove caliber defense at catcher, we all assumed he would be by now.
Perhaps he really is just a guy who continues to be a Gold Glove caliber catcher who can throw out nearly 40% of runners trying to steal, while providing decent enough offense to the tune of a .260/.328/.421 batting line with 20 to 25 homeruns a season. I’m sure many fans are a bit disappointed in those offensive numbers because the expectations were so much higher than what he’s produced with the bat at this point in his career. After all, Buster Posey just put up a .336/.408/.549 batting line with 24 homeruns and 103 RBI in a pitcher’s park, so why can’t Wieters do that in a hitter’s park?
There’s still plenty of time for Wieters to improve his offensive production to live up to the ridiculously high standards placed on him by fans and scouts alike, he is still just 26 years old, but would it really be so bad for him to stay right around the offensive production he’s been at the last several seasons?
To put this into better perspective let me ask you this. How many catchers other than Wieters have hit at least .249 with 20+ homeruns over the last two seasons?
The answer to that question is six. There were four catchers who did it this season (Wilin Rosario, A.J. Pierzynski, Buster Posey, and Yadier Molina) and there were just two who did it in 2011 (Mike Napoli and Brian McCann).
Now, onto my next question – how many of those same players have provided just as much, or more, value behind the plate that Wieters has over the last two seasons?
The answer to that question is a resounding no one. According to FanGraphs, Wieters has provided more overall value behind the plate over the last two seasons than any other player in the group listed above. The only other catcher who even comes close is Yadier Molina and the only reason it’s even close is because he had an absolute monster season defensively this year to close the gap ever so slightly.
I know that it’s easy to get caught up with how a player performs offensively, especially when that player is on your favorite team and the expectations for him coming into the league were much, much higher than the level he is producing at with the bat. But when you take a step back and look at what Wieters brings to the table and the overall value he provides to his team you can see that he’s one of the most valuable catchers in all of baseball.
And it is that overall value that he provides which will help dictate how long of an extension, as well as how much money, he gets when he and the Orioles decide to cross that bridge. Right now, an argument can be made to wait until he goes through another year of arbitration before opening up contract talks with him. However, another argument can be made that the team should try to lock him up for five or six years now to buy out his remaining arbitration years and a year or two of free agency because he could explode offensively next season and drastically increase his value.
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter because whether he blows up offensively next season or continues to produce at the level he’s been producing at he will still be in line for a hefty payday when it’s all said and done. He’s likely to get at least a $60 million dollar extension over a period of years and that’s going to be the floor for contract talks between the Orioles and his agent, Scott Boras. Once those talks do begin and once a contract is agreed upon do not be surprised if it comes close to matching the deal that Yadier Molina signed with the St. Louis Cardinals this past off-season (5 years for $75 million dollars).
Regardless of his contract situation currently or in the future, he may very well turn into that .300 hitter with 30+ homeruns year in and year out going forward, but then again he may not. Either way he is still a top-five hitting catcher in all of baseball and he’s one of the best defensive catchers – if not the best – in the game right now. That’s something that we should all be happy with, regardless of what the expectations were when we drafted him, and hope that he’s wearing that Baltimore Orioles uniform for the rest of his career.
Note: Discussion of this post can be found here.