ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In recent days, the Orioles feared that the possibility of losing catcher Matt Wieters for the season was becoming closer to reality.
Still, the club clung to any shred of optimism that the two-time All-Star and two-time American League Gold Glove winner would be able to help down the stretch. Any hope of that was extinguished Monday after his follow-up visit to renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
Wieters will have Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery Tuesday at noon, performed by Andrews, that will end his season. Recovery time for the procedure is estimated at nine months, so the Orioles hope Wieters can return in time for Opening Day next year.
Wieters began feeling discomfort in his throwing arm early last month, but he initially tried playing through it. He played his last game at catcher May 4 on the road against the Minnesota Twins and was the team’s starting designated hitter for four more games before going on the DL on May 11 after an MRI and first appointment with Andrews.
On Monday, another MRI was taken that still showed damage to the ulnar collateral ligament in Wieters’ right elbow.
“They took an MRI [Monday] for comparison, and it was about the same, if anything a little bit worse, so we’re going to go ahead and proceed down that avenue,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “We’re hopeful he’s ready to start the year next year.”
Physical problems became apparent when Wieters, who entered the season having thrown out 33.3 percent of basestealers in his career, struggled to maintain that success this season, throwing out just one of 12 base runners (8.3 percent).
“Matt would do whatever,” Showalter said. “If it was just a matter of something that just required rest, Matt would have played through it. You guys saw kind of what was happening the last couple weeks [that he played], some guys were stealing bases who had no shot before. We knew it was affecting him, and bothering him to not be able to perform at the level he’s spoiled us with.”
Wieters took three weeks off from throwing, as was recommended by Andrews, in hopes that rest might help diminish the pain. He also received a platelet-rich plasma injection in an attempt to accelerate his recovery.
But Wieters still felt soreness in his arm when he resumed throwing earlier this month, and it became more evident that he might need surgery.
“With his facial and body language and talking to him, we were hoping to get real lucky today, but I think we all knew where it was headed,” Showalter said. “As much work as he and the trainers and everybody had put in, he really wasn’t making a whole lot of progress. He really had one good day of throwing, it was kind of encouraging and you could see it in his face that day. The next day he was kind of sore, and where he was having the soreness was pretty indicative of the UCL.”
The Orioles had set an unofficial July 1 deadline to decide whether Wieters would need the surgery, but once his throwing progression stalled, it was decided to have the surgery as soon as possible.
“July 1 was really the day we had to do something [by], so it’s like we’re almost getting a two-week head start on it,” Showalter said. “There’s part of it you try to prepare for, but I think we all had a pretty good indication, knowing Matt, where it was probably heading. But you always try to go down the other avenue as long as you can. But we had reached a point where [surgery was needed]. We felt like this, eventually, he was going to need to have it, and when it wasn’t getting much better, we’d like to go ahead and take care of the problem.”
In the procedure, the palmaris longus — a tendon in the front of the wrist that some people don’t even have — will be removed from his right wrist to reconstruct the ligament in his elbow. This aspect of the procedure is commong for nonpitchers. He will do the beginning stages of his rehabilitation in Atlanta.
Wieters was having one of his best seasons at the plate before being sidelined, hitting .308/.339/.500 with five homers and 18 RBIs in 26 games. The switch-hitter was hitting .325 in 83 at-bats left-handed this year, much higher than his .248 career batting average from that side of the plate.
Despite not playing for six weeks, Wieters still leads AL catchers in the voting for the All-Star Game in Minneapolis in July.
Barring another move, the Orioles will rely on rookie Caleb Joseph and trade acquisition Nick Hundley, who have combined to hit .136 for the Orioles through Sunday, to replace Wieters for the remainder of the season.
“Matty, the night before last, he kept kind of walking by my office, and he was kind of in and out, and he was one of the last guys to leave the locker room, and I knew both he and I were going to have a little trouble with [saying goodbye],” Showalter said. “So I just kind of walked out there to him, and I said, ‘Listen, neither one of us is very good at this, so I got it. Good luck, stay in touch, I hope things go well.’
“We’ll see him a lot of times I’m sure. His presence is always here. I feel real confident in the two guys we have and the depth we have.”