is one of the few star catchers not already signed to a long-term contract. (J. Meric/Getty Images)
After Asking Him To Appear On Their Cover, Sports Illustrated Asked For Permission To Rename Their Magazine "Matt Wieters Sports Illustrated"; Wieters Declined Saying He Didn't Want To Limit Himself To Just Sports. — from Matt Wieters Facts
Matt Wieters was a legend long before he arrived in Baltimore in 2009, inspiring a series of "facts" so good, that site linked above notes, "they make Chuck Norris cry like a little girl." Rather than turning into a martial arts/movie star, Wieters was supposed to become what Buster Posey has -- not just a star catcher but an MVP capable of leading a team to a world championship.
Chosen with the fifth pick of the 2007 draft, Wieters was positioned at the forefront of the Orioles' long-awaited turnaround, and while it took until last year for the team to post its first winning record — and reach the playoffs for the first time — since 1997, he was right in the thick of it. He may not have hit like his 2008 minor league numbers (.355/.454/.600 with 27 home runs in High-A and Double-A) suggested he would, but he solidified his place as one of the game's top two-way catchers, earning All-Star and Gold Glove honors for a second straight season while helping the O's win a wild-card spot.
Wieters may be one of the next to join the wave of major contract extensions that continues to wash over Major League Baseball. The 26-year-old Orioles catcher was reportedly offered a deal of at least five years, though its exact terms aren't known. On Wednesday night, Wieters himself professed that he hadn't even heard that the team had made an offer, a statement that might raise an eyebrow, given that he's represented by Scott Boras, who appears to have been the last to know about Robinson Cano's defection from his agency.
With the erosion of the free agent market in general, and of the catching market in particular, Baltimore would be wise to lock in a commitment to Wieters. As Cliff Corcoran pointed out when Posey signed his eight-year, $159 million extension last week, the most valuable ones in terms of Wins Above Replacement — five of the top six, and seven of the top 10, using 2012 numbers — are under team control through at least 2017, some of them via club options. Posey, Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero, Jonathan Lucroy and Salvador Perez are all in that class. Of the other three, Carlos Ruiz and A.J. Ellis are both over 30; the former can become a free agent this winter as he heads into his age 35 season, while the latter is a late-blooming "Super Two" under club control through 2016, his age-35 season.
From among that top 10, that leaves Wieters, who's making $5.5 million this year, his first of arbitration eligibility. He won't be a free agent until after the 2015 season, so there isn't tremendous urgency to get a deal done, and given Boras' general strategy of taking his clients to free agency in search of top dollar, it may not be easy. But as the examples of Jered Weaver, Carlos Gonzalez and now Elvis Andrus remind us, exceptions exist among Boras' stable of big-name clients. Furthermore, Wieters' price isn't likely to get any less expensive unless he suffers a major injury, and the Orioles don't have a single catcher who cracked their top 30 list in this year's Baseball America Prospect Handbook.
If Wieters hasn't become the offensive force suggested by his torrid age-22 showing at in 2008 — one that led both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus to anoint him as the game's' top prospect — or an MVP winner like Posey or Mauer, he has still emerged as a very good player both at the plate and behind it. Last year he hit .249/.329/.435 with 23 homers, good for a .270 True Average, 12 points above the major league average for a catcher. He was even better defensively. Of the 19 catchers with at least 800 innings behind the plate, he also threw out 39 percent of would-be base thieves, third behind Yadier Molina and Miguel Montero, fourth in stolen bases per nine (0.39) behind those two and Ryan Hannigan, and fourth in missed pitches (wild pitches plus passed balls) per nine (0.24) behind Hannigan, Ruiz and John Buck. Overall he was worth 3.6 WAR, down from the previous year's 5.1 but still plenty good. In addition to his second straight year of All-Star and Gold Glove honors, it's worth noting that he won The Fielding Bible's more sabermetrically-flavored award in 2011, given to just one player at each position (as opposed to one in each league, like the Gold Gloves) — the only time in the past six years that Molina hasn't won.
It's not as though the Orioles can't afford him. Cot's Contracts places their 2014 commitments at just $44 million at the moment, with Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy the only other players making more than $5 million. Jones and top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy are the only ones guaranteed money in 2015; Markakis has a $17.5 million club option for that year that's no guarantee of being picked up.
Locking in up-the-middle players who are above-average on both sides of the ball is as sound a team-building strategy as there is, and in Wieters' case, it shouldn't take a Posey or Mauer-sized nine-figure deal to do so. Something in the territory of the five-year extensions for Montero ($60 million) and Molina ($75 million) is more appropriate. Hammering out an extension with a Boras client won't be easy, but the Orioles should act to extend Wieters sooner rather than later, before he adds to his collection of hardware.