Matt Wieters officially accepted the Orioles' one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer before Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline, becoming just the second player in the four-year history of the process to do so.
Although others around Baltimore had been preparing for the sight of Wieters playing in a uniform other than the Orioles’ in 2016, the veteran catcher said Friday he was all along leaning toward accepting a qualifying offer if it was made to him.
And Wieters’ decision came as somewhat of a surprise, especially since none of the 34 qualifying offers heading into the 2015 season were accepted, and the fact that his agent, Scott Boras, typically prefers his players test the free-agent market.
Instead, one of the franchise’s cornerstones -- assumed gone by most -- will return for 2016.
“I think when you have a hard deadline set, you’re going to take it up to as close to that deadline as you can, but really throughout the whole process, it’s kind of where we’ve been leaning,” Wieters said.
“If it was going to be a one-year or a shorter contract, [I felt] that there would be no better place for me to feel comfortable as a catcher with my staff as I’d be in Baltimore as well as feel comfortable with the city and the ballpark. One of the big things, too, is my family loves Baltimore and they would be more than ecstatic to be there for another year.”
The Orioles made Wieters -- as well as left-handed starter Wei-Yin Chen and slugging first baseman Chris Davis -- qualifying offers, ensuring them a compensatory pick following the first round in next year’s draft if any signed elsewhere. Davis and Chen both declined their offers Friday and will test the free-agent market.
It was believed that even though Wieters was coming off a season in which he played in just 75 games coming back from 2014 Tommy John elbow reconstruction, he would still receive a multiyear deal. That didn’t materialize and instead, he decided to remain with the Orioles.
“I think it solidifies our ballclub because we’re adding a catcher who knows our pitching staff obviously and offensive catchers are very difficult to find,” executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “We have a power hitter in Matt and with the surgery being [nearly] two years removed when we start the season next year and Matt being 30 years old, I think Matt has the chance to have a really good year for our ballclub.
“We thought there was a chance that Matt would come back to us. We extended the qualifying offer because he’s very strong at his position and had good leadership ability and he’s helped our club. But the general reports were that he’d sign a long-term deal elsewhere. In the past, we tried to sign him to a long-term deal and we weren’t successful, but this is another way to extend our relationship and I hope it works out for the good.”
Duquette conceded that taking on nearly $16 million for one player could impact the club’s plans for the offseason, but he said it wouldn’t affect the Orioles’ “desire or ability” to retain Davis, which has been one of the club’s top offseason priorities along with bolstering the starting pitching and adding corner-outfield help.
“The qualifying offer that Matt accepted, of course that will take up a good chunk of our money, but we still have some flexibility to go out and continue to build our ballclub with some players that are on the [free-agent] market,” Duquette said. “I think it helps when you have a veteran like Wieters return to your club. I think that sends a good message to players that are considering Baltimore, and as far as the construction of our team, I think it helps us continue to assemble a competitive team for the coming year.”
The $15.8 million that Wieters will earn next season will be the second-highest annual salary in Orioles history. Center fielder Adam Jones will make a base salary of $16.3 million in 2016, the fourth season of a six-year, $85.5 million extension signed in 2012.
Even though Wieters stood well above the rest as the best overall player in an otherwise weak free-agent catching market, it appeared that he might be best suited to take the qualifying offer and possibly test the market again next year.
By having Wieters on a one-year deal, the Orioles also buy time to negotiate a possible long-term deal.
“When it came down to it, there’s no other organization or city from my experience in the major leagues where I’d rather play, especially on a one-year deal, than Baltimore,” Wieters said. “It came down to I think God was leading me to come back, and the offer I thought was my best shot to be back in Baltimore and I’m excited to be back with the guys in the clubhouse. I think that’s what made last year so hard, thinking that I may not be in that clubhouse, and now I’m extremely excited to know that I’ll be back in there with those guys and going to battle each day.”
Wieters is coming off a season in which his return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction last year was slowed. He didn’t make his season debut until June 5 and caught on back-to-back days just five times. Wieters made just 55 starts behind the plate last season, hitting .267/.319/.422 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in 282 plate appearances. Wieters hit 20 or more homers in each of the three seasons before the injury.
Provided Wieters shows durability comparable to his earlier years – he averaged 129 starts at catcher from 2010 to 2013 – he could use this season as a platform for a lucrative multiyear deal next offseason.
“I think the further I get from the surgery the better and better my arm is going to feel,” Wieters said. “I think that’s something we’ll know more about as the season goes on. You never know what things will happen, but the plan is to getting the body and getting the arm in shape to be where I’m ready to come back in and be an everyday catcher.”
And now, an offseason that could lead to a dramatic facelift in personnel began with one of its most familiar faces returning. Wieters said he hopes his return could help the Orioles retain some of their other free agents.
“Yeah, I know I’d love to have all the guys back in the clubhouse who were there last year,” Wieters said. “It’s probably a stretch to think that, but our clubhouse was so close and it’s tough to find that kind of group in Major League Baseball. I hope we keep adding pieces and adding pieces, and everybody comes to spring training ready to go.”
Before Wieters accepted the Orioles offer, Houston Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus becoming the first player to accept a qualifying offer on Thursday. On Friday, Dodgers right-hander Brett Anderson became the third player to accept a qualifying offer. They are the only three players among the 54 to ever receive qualifying offers to accept.
But Wieters said precedent didn’t play a role in his decision.
“I think the difficult thing was just trying to figure out what was best for me and my family and what I felt what God was leading me to do,” Wieters said. “I tried to grind out a decision really quick in the offseason and then it just came to me that what can be better than playing for the team that I love in the city I love for another year. Hopefully, God willing, a healthy year would be great.”