Trading Matt Wieters would be a mistake by the Orioles
Back in April, the Baltimore Orioles reportedly offered Matt Wieters a long-term contract extension, one that made sense given the progression of his career and the trend of teams locking up the game's top young catchers. No deal came to pass, and on the heels of a career-worst season, Wieters has surfaced as a potential trade candidate, less because Orioles are burning to unload him than because their tight finances limit the routes via which they can improve. Even given that, trading him isn't the right call.
The now-27-year-old Wieters has never quite lived up to the lofty expectations that made him the fifth pick of the 2007 draft and number one on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list in 2009. While he's earned Gold Glove and All-Star honors twice and reached the 20-homer plateau in each of the past three years, Wieters has hit a less-than-scalding .255/.319/.420 in his five major league seasons. He was particularly lousy at the plate in 2013 (.235/.287/.417), with his batting average and on-base percentage both career lows; his 88 OPS+ ranked 22nd out of 30 catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.
His defense drew mixed reviews; he was 13 runs below average via Defensive Runs Saved, but an AL-best six runs above average via Runs Effectively Defended, the unpublished system created by defensive metrics pioneer Chris Dial and factored into this year's Gold Glove voting (Chris graciously granted me access to that work, the publication of which is forthcoming). His 0.4 WAR represented a precipitous drop from the 8.7 WAR he compiled in 2011-2012.
The Orioles and Wieters — or rather agent Scott Boras — apparently never came close to striking a deal, and as the season wore on, insiders such as ESPN's Buster Olney reported that the organization now expects that Wieters will follow the typical Boras protocol by heading to free agency after the 2015 season instead of signing an extension. Manager Buck Showalter made waves in late July when he told USA Today that if Alex Rodriguez is suspended, allowing the Yankees some long-term salary relief, "I guarantee you in two years Matt Wieters is in New York."
While Baltimore missed the playoffs in 2013 after breaking a 14-year drought the prior season, it remains a contender. Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy have all emerged as players more central to the Orioles' success than Wieters. That, coupled with his apparent determination to test the market, helps to explain why Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported sources telling him that the O's are willing to trade the catcher.
In a subsequent column, Rosenthal suggested that barring a commitment from owner Peter Angelos to substantially increase payroll beyond last year's $92.3 million Opening Day figure, general manager Dan Duquette may have to find ways to offload salary in order to bolster the team's attempt to contend, with Wieters and closer Jim Johnson both potential trade chips in the pursuit of a frontline starter. Wieters, who made $5.5 million in 2013, stands to make around $8 million in his third year of arbitration eligibility, while Johnson, who made $6.5 million this past season, could make upwards of $10 million in his fourth year of eligibility (he was a Super Two).
From here, it makes more sense to deal Johnson, since competent closers are much more easy to find. Not only does the free agent market offer an abundance of them, but smart teams can and do turn inexpensive pitchers without an abundance of ninth-inning experience into closers every year. The Orioles themselves did it with Johnson, who has saved 101 games over the past two seasons despite a meager strikeout rate (6.3 per nine). Though he missed more bats in 2013 than in 2012, his overall performance took a major hit, as he blew nine saves (up from three) and saw his OPS allowed rise from .556 to .699.
Reliable two-way catchers are far more scarce than fringe closer candidates. At the time of Buster Posey's extension, SI.com's Cliff Corcoran pointed out that the most valuable catchers — five of the top six, and seven of the top 10, using 2012 Wins Above Replacement totals (Posey, Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer, Santana, Montero, Jonathan Lucroy and Salvador Perez) — are under club control through at least 2017 via contracts and arbitration eligibility. Two of the other three, Carlos Ruiz and A.J. Ellis are both over 30; the former is now a free agent heading into his age-35 season, while the latter is under club control through 2016, his age-35 season.
The landscape has shifted somewhat since then, as Jason Castro, Welington Castillo, Russell Martin, Yan Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia cracked this year's top 10 in WAR. While the Astros' Castro is under club control through 2016,the Cubs' Castillo through 2017 and the Indians' Gomes through 2018, Saltalamacchia, Ruiz and Brian McCann are free agents this winter, while Pittsburgh's Martin is a year away. Even with Wieters' 2013 struggles, however, none of those players have surpassed his 9.1 WAR over the past three years — fifth among catchers behind Molina, Posey, Santana and the since-shifted Mauer— though Ruiz (9.0) and Martin (8.6) are quite close.
Many of those aforementioned players could make for a useful replacement for Wieters, perhaps even an upgrade in the long run, and a less expensive one at that, either in terms of a free agent contract or in the amount of talent it would take to acquire them relative to what a peak-value Wieters might net. The problem, of course, is that the Baltimore backstop's value isn't anywhere close to its peak. Trading him as he comes off a career-worst season wouldn't bring nearly the windfall that it would have a year or two ago.
Thus, it makes more sense to keep Wieters for now and bank on a rebound. If Baltimore still intends to deal him down the road, it will receive a stronger return even if his new team has a shorter period of control before free agency. Duquette may have already come to that conclusion himself (if he ever actually thought otherwise), given that he has sounded far less keen on moving either Wieters or Hardy — who is another subject of recent rumors, not to mention the man standing in the way of Machado returning to his natural position at shortstop. The sun may not rise when Matt Wieters decides to wake up, but he also may not develop into an MVP-candidate catcher who leads his team to a championship the way Posey has. Even so, his track record strongly suggests he's a good enough player at a position where talent is scarce that he shouldn't be dumped simply to save a few million on one year's budget.