In their nearly six decades, the Baltimore Orioles have been blessed with great players at nearly every position. Take shortstop. How many teams have had Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken, Mike Bordick, Miguel Tejada and J.J. Hardy in less than 60 years?
The Orioles have had excellent players at nearly every position. One exception is catcher. There have been some good catchers: Rick Dempsey has caught more games than any other in team history and he won the Most Valuable Player in the 1983 World Series.
In the early years, there was Gus Triandos, and more recently Chris Hoiles, who was a more than serviceable catcher during the Orioles playoff teams in the 1990s.
Mickey Tettleton, Ramon Hernandez and Charles Johnson were good catchers who may have played their best elsewhere, though Tettleton was remembered for eating Fruit Loops during the Orioles “Why Not” 1989 season.
The team had high hopes for Earl Williams, who died this week of leukemia, and whose misfortunes were detailed in a lengthy obituary in Saturday’s New York Times. Williams was a strong hitter, but to put it kindly, an indifferent receiver.
Should Matt Wieters stay with the Orioles for the bulk of his career, he’ll easily be the best catcher in team history. Manager Buck Showalter has already called him the best he’s had.
There were high hopes when Wieters was drafted in 2007, and after he was quickly promoted to the major leagues less than two years later, an unbelievable amount of hype.
Former team president Andy MacPhail shrewdly delayed his ascension until late May, ensuring an additional year of club control.
In our immediate gratification baseball society, Wieters was panned as overrated because he didn’t immediately hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs. He still hasn’t, but that’s fine.
He’s in the top handful of major league catchers, works brilliantly with his pitching staff and works the clubhouse without ego. Wieters is unfailingly polite, never turning down an interview request.
The Orioles quickly understood his value, settling with Wieters on a one-year, $5.5 million contract on Jan.18. That number was far above most estimates for a first-year arbitration eligible player. Dan Duquette wasn’t relishing going to arbitration with Wieters’ uberagent Scott Boras.
Duquette probably isn’t going to enjoy working out a long-term contract with Wieters, but it’s necessary. Now that Adam Jones, Duquette and Showalter are locked in through 2018, Wieters will be next.
Boras and Wieters may prefer to wait a year. Thanks to MacPhail, Wieters has three more years until he can be a free agent. Wieters’ defensive skills are outstanding, but if he has that 30 homer, 100 RBI year in 2013, his market value skyrockets.
Last year, Wieters hit .249 with 23 homers and 83 RBIs, solid numbers for a catcher, but not eye-popping. The numbers that stood out were 144 games played, 134 as a catcher and 39 percent of runners trying to steal thrown out.
Even more impressive, only 83 runners tried to steal on him, nine fewer than the year before. In 2011, he threw out 37 percent of those trying to steal.
The size of Wieters’ contract would be enormous, but that’s his value to the team. He’s not as skilled a hitter as Joe Mauer, who’s starting the third year of an eight-year, $184 million deal with Minnesota, but a better catcher.
Boras isn’t known for leaving money on the table, but the Orioles know they can’t afford not to sign Wieters.
“I like Matt Wieters, and I like his leadership, and I’m sure there will be opportunities for the team and Matt to address a longer-term relationship,” Duquette said at last month’s FanFest.
“I don’t know the timing of it. The good news is that Matt’s signed for this year. He had a great year. He’s continuing to improve as an RBI man. His leadership and defense are big plusses for the team. We’re looking forward to having him do that, and hopefully have him beyond the three years we have him on the team,” Duquette said.
The betting is that the Orioles and Wieters will wait until after this season and address the issue with a lucrative, long-term deal with two years to go before free agency. Another successful season for Wieters and the Orioles will only make that deal more lucrative.