Matt Wieters dodges bullet, won't need Tommy John surgery
New Matt Wieters Fact: Matt Wieters can emerge from the office of Dr. James Andrews with good news about his elbow problem.
Unlike the long-ago fables about the Baltimore catcher's superhuman capabilities, this one is true. Wieters visited the country's foremost orthopedic surgeon out of concern that he might need season-ending Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right (throwing) elbow. Via the Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly, the verdict is that not only won't he need surgery, but that he could also avoid the disabled list entirely. In reviewing the 27-year-old backstop's MRI, which was taken on Monday, Andrews discovered that Wieters' problem concerns an irregularity in the flexor mass of his elbow, one that may date back to his days as a college pitcher.
Though he has seldom lived up to the hype that came with being the game's number one prospect back in 2009, Wieters has earned All-Star and Gold Glove honors twice in five-plus major league seasons. After hitting a combined .255/.329/.442 and totaling 8.4 WAR in 2011-12 — helping the team to its first playoff berth since 1997 in the latter year — he struggled from the left side of the plate and slumped to .235/.287/.417 with 0.5 WAR last year. So far in 2014, he's been swinging the bat very well, hitting .341/.374/.560 with five homers.
Behind the plate, however, Wieters has cut down just one out of 12 would-be base thieves, well off last year's 35-percent caught-stealing rate; the Twins stole five bases against him in his last two starts. MLB.com's Brittany Ghiroli reported that he first felt soreness in his forearm after throwing to second base during the Orioles' road trip to Boston (April 18-20); he sat out the team's next two games, but collected seven hits and 12 total bases in his first three games back.
While he'll avoid the DL for the time being and could soon start a throwing program, Wieters will be limited to DH duty until further notice; he went 2-for-5 in that capacity on Tuesday night against the Rays. Backup Steve Clevenger and minor league callup Caleb Joseph are expected to share the receiving duties in his semi-absence. The former is a 28-year-old with a career .206/.269/.300 line and a 13-percent caught-stealing rate in the majors, and the latter is a late-blooming 27-year-old who's been teeing off on much younger pitchers in the minors (.299/.346/.494 with 22 homers at Double-A Bowie in 2013). Wieters' limitations mean less DH duty for Nelson Cruz, the only Baltimore hitter who's hotter than Wieters (.298/.370/.588 with a team-high nine homers), but Cruz has been playing a fair bit of leftfield anyway given David Lough's lows (.172/.221/.234) and Delmon Young's highs (.320/.358/.440).
Had Wieters needed Tommy John surgery, it would have been a significant blow to the Orioles, who at 16-14 are tied for first in the AL East but have been outscored by four runs overall. They just got Manny Machado back from a knee injury suffered at the end of 2013, but are probably a week or more away from getting Chris Davis back from an oblique strain.
Such surgery would have been an even bigger blow for Wieters, who is earning $7.7 million this year and eying a big free agent payday after the 2015 season; at a time when most of the game's top catchers are under club control for the next few years, he and agent Scott Boras have rebuffed the Orioles' attempts to sign him to a long-term extension. While position players can return from TJ sooner than pitchers, the disabled list data at Baseball Heat Maps shows only 12 catchers from among the 681 Tommy John surgeries, including only five with major league experience: Steve Christmas (1986), J.R. House (2003), Vance Wilson (2007 and 2008), Chris Coste (2010) and John Baker (2010); via a reader tip (h/t @scottlucas), Taylor Teagarden (2005) has been added to the list.
Of that group, only Baker and Teagarden have seen significant major league time at the position afterwards, and their performances since then looks like worst-case scenarios for Wieters. Baker has hit .207/.288/.236 in 304 PA with an 18-percent caught-stealing rate since, while Teagarden — who backed up Wieters for parts of 2012 and 2013 — owns a lifetime .206/.266/.390 line through 518 PA with a more respectable 33 percent caught stealing rate. House and Christmas combined for all of 34 more major league games and 71 PA, while Wilson and Coste never made it back to the bigs. Given that sorry track record, both the catcher and his team should breathe huge sighs of relief. Wieters may not be at full strength, but the outcome with regards to his elbow and his future could have been a whole lot worse.