Since being called up to the majors by the Orioles in 2009, Matt Wieters has been expected to be one of the best catchers in MLB. However, what’s prevented him from being as highly regarded as the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, the Giants’ Buster Posey or even the Phillies’ Carlos Ruiz has been his hitting.
Coming into this season, Wieters had a career .255 batting average with a .739 OPS. Though he’s slugged 87 home runs with 328 RBI over the past five years, the 27-year-old hasn’t been the outstanding two-way catcher many projected him to be as the No. 5 overall pick in 2007.
But the results have been different in 2014. After 22 games and 94 plate appearances, Wieters is batting .341 with a .934 OPS, five doubles, five homers and 18 RBI. That batting average ranks second in the AL, while his OPS places him fifth among league leaders. This is more like what analysts and fans had in mind for the Orioles catcher. Actually, those numbers might exceed the grand expectations placed upon him.
Unfortunately, just as Wieters appeared to be emerging into a star hitter, injury might be striking him down.
As Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan first reported, the forearm and elbow soreness that Wieters has been experiencing over the past couple of weeks raised concerns of a serious issue. The fear was that Wieters may have suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which would require season-ending Tommy John surgery. But Dr. James Andrews — who’s been a busy man this spring — examined Wieters in Pensacola, Fla. on Wednesday and determined that a reconstructive procedure wasn’t necessary.
The Orioles seemed to view Tommy John surgery as the worst-case scenario anyway. Manager Buck Showalter had Wieters in the lineup on Tuesday as the designated hitter, and he batted 2-for-5. As serious as the elbow issue may have been, it didn’t appear to adversely affect Wieters’ hitting.
According to the Baltimore Sun‘s Eduardo A. Encina, Wieters said he suffered the injury during a series in Toronto two weeks ago. He sat out for one game, but played the next day. In those two games versus the Blue Jays, Wieters batted 5-for-10 with two doubles, a home run and four RBI.
Wieters’ present and future health create a potentially complicated situation for him and the Orioles. Baltimore is currently tied for first place in the AL East, but its offense is nowhere near as potent as it was last year. With 130 runs scored, the O’s have the fourth-worst total in the league and a -4 run differential. Compare that to last season, when Baltimore posted the third-most runs in the AL and outscored opponents by a total of 36 runs.
The Orioles did make the playoffs in 2012 despite ranking ninth out of 14 teams in runs scored. Maybe they can do so again. But it would be extremely difficult with one of their best hitters sidelined.
Nelson Cruz leads the team in home runs, RBI and OPS, but he’s not getting help from many other guys besides Wieters. Before suffering an oblique injury, Chris Davis was batting .250 with a .754 OPS and two homers. J.J. Hardy has a .602 OPS and no home runs. Adam Jones is batting .252 with a .619 OPS. Manny Machado just returned to the everyday lineup, but how long will it take him to regain his form after recovering from a serious knee injury?
Had Wieters required a Tommy John procedure, he could have delayed it until after the season and continued playing as the Orioles’ DH. With a lineup that needs him and a team in contention for a division title and playoff spot, Wieters may have decided to put off surgery had Andrews found a torn UCL.
What was at stake for Wieters if he had to go under the knife? Position players typically recover from reconstructive elbow surgery faster than pitchers because of the lesser demands on their arm. Wieters could have been ready eight months after the procedure, rather than the 12 months pitchers usually require. But if he waited until after the season for the operation, that would have a major effect on next season. If the Orioles made it to the postseason and Wieters didn’t have surgery until November, the most optimistic timetable would project him to return in June or July.
Have we mentioned that Wieters is set to be a free agent after the 2015 season? Missing two to three months of his walk year with possibly diminished production as he works his way back wouldn’t help Wieters’ market value. In terms of his best interests, the best move would be to have surgery now — if it’s required — and come back fully recovered and healthy. Given the lack of quality catching throughout MLB (especially from an offensive standpoint), Wieters would stand to cash in big through free agency.
However, what if the Orioles have a chance at the postseason? No team in the AL East is breaking away from the pack. The same applies to the rest of the league, with the possible exception of the Tigers.
If Wieters continues to hit the way he has thus far, Baltimore is certainly a better team with him in the lineup. Backup catcher Steve Clevenger might be adequate, with his current .312 on-base percentage and .767 OPS. But can he keep that up over a full season. Caleb Joseph has a .686 OPS with Triple-A Norfolk this season. Though his .840 OPS, 22 homers and 97 RBI in Double-A Bowie last year show that he’s capable of being an impact hitter. Could the Orioles get by with that tandem?
Of course, Wieters’ numbers could decline as the season progresses. His current .361 BABIP indicates that he’s due to regress at least a bit in the months to come. Yet he could also keep on hitting and doctors may determine that his elbow injury can’t get any worse if he continues to play solely as a DH.
That looks like the approach the Orioles and Wieters will take for now. Since he doesn’t need surgery, the possibility exists that Wieters’ elbow will recover while he’s a DH and he can eventually play catcher again this season. Both team and player would benefit from that development. Wieters appears to have dodged the proverbial bullet with the good news from Dr. Andrews. But until he fully recovers, the dilemma over his future could be a significant one.