When Matt Wieters first went on the disabled list for a torn ulnar collateral ligament back in early May, the Orioles were optimistic that he could avoid Tommy John surgery, as he emerged from the office of Dr. James Andrews with the rare bit of good news. However, the 28-year-old backstop's soreness has persisted through rest and rehab, so he'll undergo the season-ending surgery on Tuesday, thus hampering the Orioles' bid at contention and leaving his own future up in the air.
Wieters had been one of the Orioles' most productive hitters this year, batting .308/.339/.500 with five homers in 112 plate appearances through May 10. While he has seldom lived up to the hype that accompanied being anointed the game's top prospect back in 2009, he appeared on his way to bouncing back from a subpar 2013 (.235/.287/.417, 91 OPS+ and 0.5 WAR) to earn his third trip to the All-Star Game in four years. His 131 OPS+ is the team's second-best mark behind that of Nelson Cruz (168) and well above his career mark of 100, based on a .257/.320/.423 line. That said, he has struggled with his throwing this year, cutting down just one of 12 would-be base thieves, well off last year's 35 percent caught-stealing rate. While he may have been no threat to add a third Gold Glove to his collection, the Orioles — who are 35-34 but rank just 10th in the league in scoring at 4.16 runs per game — were at least optimistic that he could serve as a DH while his elbow healed.
Unfortunately, an MRI taken in a follow-up appointment with Dr. Andrews on Monday showed that the condition of Wieters' elbow had actually deteriorated, leaving no alternative but surgery. He'll miss the remainder of the season, but by making the decision now, two weeks before their internal July 1 deadline, the Orioles believe that his timetable should allow him to be ready to start the 2015 season, since the recovery time for position players to return from Tommy John surgery is shorter than that for pitchers.
That said, the amount of throwing that catchers do makes their recovery from TJ different than that of other position players, and in fact, the annals do not contain a whole lot of happy tales. Via the disabled list data at Baseball Heat Maps, just 17 of the 730 instances of TJ surgery involved catchers, and of the 15 players who went under the knife in such fashion (two did so twice), only eight ever accumulated major league service time. More on them below.
Since Wieters went on the DL, the Orioles have acquired Nick Hundley from the Padres and promoted minor leaguer Caleb Joseph, but the two are a combined 12-for-91 with two doubles and no homers thus far. The 30-year-old Hundley is a career .237/.293/.384 hitter in parts of seven major league seasons, and he's nothing to write home about behind the plate, with a 27 percent caught-stealing rate and −10.4 Framing Runs per season (7000 called strikes/balls) via Baseball Prospectus. Joseph is a former seventh-round draft pick who turns 28 on Wednesday; he hit .299/.346/.494 with 22 homers in 135 games at Double-A Bowie last year, but that was his fourth season at the level. In 44 games at Triple-A Norfolk split evenly between 2013 and 2014, he has hit just .238/.287/.356 with a 33 percent caught-stealing rate. Steve Clevenger, a 28-year-old who lost his roster spot upon the acquisition of Hundley, was sent back to Norfolk; he has hit .243/.300/.378 in 80 PA this year but is a lifetime .213/.272/.303 hitter in 324 major league PA. All of which is to say that if the Orioles — who are running third in the AL East, five games out — are to continue to contend, they may be in the market for an upgrade.
Wieters' surgery comes at a difficult time with regards to his future. He's earning $7.7 million this year and has one more year of arbitration eligibility before reaching free agency. Prior to his injury, he and agent Scott Boras rebuffed the Orioles' attempts to sign him to a long-term extension, eyeing a market where most of the game's top catchers are under club control for the next few years. With no chance of a hometown discount, the Orioles aren't likely to extend both him and Chris Davis, who will reach free agency after next year as well, and now his injury likely eliminates any chance the team had of dealing him in anticipation of his potential departure, to say nothing of renewing extension talks.
How likely is Wieters to return to form? If there's good news to be had, it's that he's almost certainly a better player than at least seven of the eight catchers with major league experience who have previously undergone the surgery, with the eighth carrying a major caveat. What follows is a quick rundown of their fates, in chronological order.
Steve Christmas, 1986
A 28-year-old backup backstop who played just 24 major league games from 1983-1986, Christmas is the earliest instance in the database of a catcher having TJ, and just the second position player after Paul Molitor (1984), though there may have been others whose surgeries slipped through the cracks in the pre-internet era. His career appears to have his career ended by the surgery, as he didn't play at any level after 1986.
Todd Hundley, 1997
The son of former major league catcher Randy Hundley (1964-1977) but no relation to the aformentioned Nick Hundley, Todd is the one with the caveat. After earning All-Star honors for the Mets in both 1996 and 1997 while bopping a combined 71 homers, he underwent the surgery on Sept. 26, 1997. He spent the first half of the 1998 season on the disabled list, a time during which the Mets traded for Mike Piazza. When Hundley returned to the Mets in mid-July, he was forced to the unfamiliar position of leftfield. Much drama — some of it carrying over from the previous season — ensued as he hit .161/.261/.266 in 53 games, struggled to play the outfield and needed a late-season trip to the DL amid further elbow soreness.
The Mets traded him to the Dodgers in December 1998; while hit 24 homers in each of his first two seasons in LA, only the latter one was any good, and he battled a variety of injuries for the remainder of his career. Post-surgery, he hit .217/.308/.437 (93 OPS+) with 81 homers in 449 games spread over six seasons, and his defense behind the plate — never his strong suit — declined as well. Bat-wise, his post-TJ performance may have been his natural level, given that in 2007, the Mitchell Report revealed that he had purchased Deca-Durabolin and testosterone prior to his 40-homer 1996 season, and had put up just an 83 OPS+ in parts of six major league seasons to that point.
J.R. House, 2002
A fifth-round pick by the Pirates in 1999, House landed in the upper half of Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list in 2001 and 2002, but he underwent three surgeries in the latter year, including two for an abdominal hernia, plus TJ in September. He played just 40 minor league games and one major league one in 2003, and after a solid 2004 season at Triple-A, missed all of 2005 due to surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff. He wound up accumulating just 32 games and 63 plate appearances in his major league career.
Ben Davis, 2005
The overall number two pick of the 1995 draft by the Padres, Davis spent parts of seven seasons (1998-2004) in the majors with the Padres, Mariners and White Sox but only once played in more than 80 games. He tore his UCL during a minor league stint with the White Sox in 2005, and underwent the surgery on June 28; while he played parts of five more seasons in the minors — even converting to the mound in 2008 — he never returned to the majors.
Taylor Teagarden, 2005
A 2005 third-round draft pick by the Rangers out of the University of Texas, Teagarden underwent TJ in November of that year following his first professional season. He played in just seven games the next season, but climbed onto the BA Top 100 list in 2008 and 2009, spending time with the Rangers in both seasons. His career has since evolved into that of a typical Quad-A player; he's hit .203/.264/.387 with 21 homers in 536 PA while throwing out 32 percent of would-be base thieves for the Rangers (2008-2011), Orioles (2012-2013, as Wieters' backup) and Mets (2014) while spending considerable time in the minors and on the DL for back woes.
Vance Wilson, 2007 and 2008
A career backup, Wilson played in 403 games for the Mets and Tigers from 1999-2006. Limited to just three minor league games in 2007 due to a torn muscle in his forearm, he tore his UCL while rehabbing, and underwent his first TJ surgery in June 2007, at the age of 34. He didn't play again before needing a second surgery a year later, and played in just 59 minor league games thereafter, going 0-for-20 in throwing out base thieves and never returning to the majors.
Chris Coste, 2010
Though he didn't make his major league debut until 2006 at age 33, Coste emerged as a solid backup catcher for the Phillies during their recent run of success; he was part of the 2007 NL East champs and 2008 world champions before being traded to Houston in mid-2009. He underwent TJ in May 2010 while a member of the Nationals' organization, but he was soon released, and didn't play another professional game before officially retiring in 2011.
John Baker, 2010
Baker hit a combined .281/.364/.423 for the Marlins in 2008-2009, though he struggled to control the running game, throwing out just 19 percent of would-be base thieves. After a slow start in 2010, he went on the disabled list due to a flexor strain in May. Following a June consultation with Dr. Andrews, it was believed he wouldn't need TJ, but after two abortive rehabs, an MRI showed more conclusively that he had a UCL tear. He underwent the surgery in September and was limited to just 15 minor league games and 16 major league ones the following year. Currently a backup for the Cubs, he's hit just .205/.281/.235 in 125 major league games since the surgery while nabbing just 15 percent of base thieves.
In all, only Hundley, Teagarden and Baker went on to have significant major league careers post-surgery, and they've hit a combined .212/.294/.395 in 2,445 post-surgical PA at the level with a 24 percent caught-stealing rate. That makes them more backup/fringe material than regulars, let alone stars, though to be fair, the sample size is small. Only once did any of the trio (Hundley, 1999) catch at least 100 games in a season post-surgery. That's not a whole lot to go on, and it may not be all that relevant to Wieters given his skill relative to the group, but it should temper any optimism that his surgery is an easy fix that will set him back onto a path to stardom and a lucrative payday, either in Baltimore or beyond.