May 11th has been dubbed #ReOpening Day here in Baltimore. It will also be the one year anniversary of Matt Wieters being placed on the Disabled List.
Wieters has room left in his rehab, but it appears that a June return is plausible.
When he does return to Baltimore, will he automatically reclaim the mantle as the Orioles starting catcher?
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
With the O’s going on to win the AL East last year, and Baltimore fans only getting a brief glimpse of Wieters this Spring; I think it is fair to say that the veteran catcher has somewhat faded from our collective memory. More myth than man, if not quite the mythological man he was once hyped as.
While Wieters never ascended those predicted heights (how could he?), it should be remembered that the only reason anyone can term him a ‘bust’ is that he never became baseball’s best overall catcher. Bust is an unfair moniker for a guy that is a 3x All-Star, and 2x Gold Glove.
In his four seasons with at-least 1,000 innings caught (2010-13); his average fWAR was 3.25. For context, only three catchers (Yan Gomes, Buster Posey, and Jonathan Lucroy) posted a higher number in 2014.
For failing to meet the expectations that we placed on him, Wieters has been mostly a frustration to O’s fans during his career, and not appreciated as the upper-tier catcher he has been.
This past Winter, a common refrain from the O’s (and parroted by people such as myself) was that a returning Wieters (along with a returning Machado, and an improved Davis) would help off-set the loss of Cruz, and be a nice boost to the team overall.
The assumption in that thinking was that Wieters would represent an upgrade over Caleb Joseph. The issue that exists, is that Joseph is doing everything in his power to change that line of thought.
Last year, Camden Depot wrote about the early returns on Joseph’s defense in the Major Leagues – particularly the high marks Caleb was receiving for his pitch framing.
Going into this season, my general feelings on Joseph was the he could be a positive contributing member of the roster. That the defensive accolades from last year were interesting, but that a larger sample size was required. With his strong year offensively at AA Bowie in 2013 (.299 / .346 / .494), and that stretch of power he flashed last August; I had hopes that he might that he might not be completely overwhelmed as a Major League hitter.
That said, I had my doubts. That big AA season for Joseph came with him finishing the year as a 27 year old. Certainly an advanced age for a ‘prospect.’ It was also hard to keep the positives of last August in-mind, when he went 4 for 50 during September.
When Pitchers and Catchers arrived in Sarasota, the best case scenario to me was that Wieters would be ready for Opening Day. That the mechanical changes which had Wieters quicker to the ball (and showing improvement with his splits) during his 104 ab’s in 2014, could be sustained over a full season. Not anticipating Wieters to return to the O’s for the 2016 season, I was ready for the O’s to mostly run him to death during the dog days of Summer. The one caveat being that Joseph might show capable of playing more than a normal backup, and that if you could rest Wieters a bit more than normal (he averaged 140 games played during 2010-13), you might get more production from him.
I don’t think I was alone with my opinion. Showalter was even quoted this February as saying he didn’t necessarily view Joseph as the favorite to back up Wieters, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way,” Showalter said. “We’ve got a lot of guys to pick from for the most part that stay in the mix, whether they make it or not. I like that flexibility. But the familiarity we have with the job that Caleb did last year certainly works for him, but that doesn’t mean it favors him and I don’t think he expects that.”
Before dismissing that quote as just Spring Training filler, one must remember that the organization has seemingly questioned Joseph before. After Joseph’s ’13 season, Orioles Player Development Director Brian Graham stated, “The bottom line is Caleb has gotten better and improved,” Graham said. “That is what is going to help us make decisions. He received better (when catching) this year, he blocked better this year and he threw better. His footwork, release and accuracy are better. Offensively, as a hitter, he had a great year.At the end of the season this year, when I sat down and evaluated him, he improved defensively,” Graham said. “Certainly, you have to consider him as an option with the Orioles because he has improved defensively. That was our concern from a player development standpoint and his defense has gotten better.”
The quote itself is positive. Caleb’s defense had improved. What you see though is that at some point the O’s questioned his abilities as a catcher.
Maybe most importantly, despite what Joseph did at the plate, and how he apparently improved defensively that season – the O’s left him off of their 40 man roster in December 2013.
Juxtaposed with where Joseph is currently, we are talking about a fairly meteoric rise.
So where exactly is Joseph currently?
The sample size behind the plate is increasing. While the throwing has not been quite as strong as last year (he nailed the Mets Granderson in the 1st inning tonight, giving him 4 throw outs in 12 attempts, vs the 40% success rate in ’14); the pitch framing numbers are becoming harder to dismiss:
— Jeff Long (@BSLJeffLong) May 4, 2015
While there is increasing reason to take the pitch framing numbers at face value, Joseph’s offense to start this year has to be viewed as inflated. That is unless you want to argue that his current (going into play Tuesday night) .305 / .414 / .475 line is sustainable.
I don’t believe it is, but the point is that if the defense is legitimate – he doesn’t have to be an .889 OPS, .389 wOBA guy to have plenty of value (especially once his minimal contract is factored in).
If the defense can be maintained, and he’s a .700 OPS guy over 500 PA’s, that is a multiple win player.
You have to think the O’s won’t activate Wieters unless he is no longer having any arm pain or issues throwing. On May 3rd, Wieters stated he still feels occasional soreness in his surgically repaired elbow. He’s clearly getting closer to coming back though, as he caught 6 innings in extended Spring Training today.
Sooner or later he is going to be put on a rehab assignment. Once he’s received a number of ab’s, and shows he can handle catching multiple days in a row – he will be back with the Birds.
Again, when that happens, how should the O’s handle the playing time of their catchers?
Let’s say that Wieters tracks to return in the beginning of June. Let’s also say that Joseph doesn’t fall completely off of a cliff here in May.
Do you immediately make Wieters the starter, and put Joseph on the bench?
The decision making from the O’s has to start with, who makes us better? After all, the goal for 2015 is post-season success. The idea that the question can be posed at all, is interesting considering how absurd this would have been conceptually not long ago.
If the answer is Wieters, I think that would tell you something about what the O’s internally feel about the publicly available pitch framing metrics.
There would be other considerations though. Joseph is the one who has been catching these starters over the past year, and to begin 2015. Going to Wieters everyday would be an adjustment for the staff. (Of course there is familiarity there, that would minimize that process.)
Another consideration would be, if Wieters is not going to be with the Orioles next year, are you better off continuing to give playing time to the guy whose contract you do control?
Another thought – the O’s might be comfortable with Wieters leaving via Free Agency, but they will want to get a compensation pick for him. The only way that happen is if the O’s offer him a Qualifying Offer, and he declines. Wieters would only be able to decline such an offer from the O’s, if he knows he has a lucrative, multi-year deal available to him elsewhere. Wieters turns 29 later this Month. Prior to last year, Brian McCann signed a 5 year $85M deal with the Yankees. Based on that contract, their respective levels of production, and ages – Wieters probably would have been looking at a 6 year $100M deal from someone this coming off-season if he had posted his career averages during ’14, and ’15. Even if Wieters joins the O’s June 1st, starts the rest of the year, and puts up his ‘normal’ numbers on a pro-rated basis – is that type of deal still going to be available to him with the time missed last year and this?
If the O’s now believe Wieters might have trouble finding a lucrative deal elsewhere, might they be scared to offer the qualifier? Can they consider offering the qualifier , if they don’t give him an opportunity to again catch every day first?
What if the O’s decide they would rather trade Wieters? Then you are still in the position of needing to play Wieters to give other teams confidence to pursue. We mentioned Milwaukee’s Lucroy above. Today, FanGraphs wrote an article presenting the case for Milwaukee to trade him. As that article illustrated, Lucroy would be worthy of a substantial return. Wieters would figure to bring back less than Lucroy, but anyone interested in Milwaukee’s catcher could also have interest in Wieters. Especially if the price to obtain was less.
A number of variables to consider here.
Ultimately, it’s just again surprising to be in this position where there is a question to consider. That’s a credit to Joseph. Hopefully while Wieters remains out, he can continue to make his case.
If Wieters does again become the Orioles starting catcher when he returns, hopefully the O’s can have the team success desired in what would figure to be Matt’s last remaining months in Baltimore.
Chris Stoner founded Baltimore Sports and Life in 2009. He has appeared as a radio guest with 1090 WBAL, 105.7 The Fan, CBS 1300, Q1370, WOYK 1350, WKAV 1400, and WNST 1570. He has also been interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, and PressBox (TV). As Owner, his responsibilities include serving as the Managing Editor, Publicist, & Sales Director.