The Orioles face their first major decision of the offseason on Monday when they must choose whether to issue a qualifying offer to free agent catcher Matt Wieters by today's 5 p.m. deadline.
This year, the qualifying offer – which is an average of the top 125 salaries from the previous season – is for a one-year, $17.2 million contract, a significant investment by any standards and especially to the Orioles, who currently have only one player -- first baseman Chris Davis at $21.1 million -- making more than that figure in 2017.
At this point, it still seems unlikely that the Orioles make Wieters the offer, but that could change leading up to today's deadline.
Before last year, the qualifying offer was more than anything a way for teams to gain a compensation draft pick when the player they made the offer to went elsewhere, simply because no player had ever accepted one. But when Wieters and two others accepted last year's qualifying offer of $15.8 million, it complicated the process for teams.
Now, it's become more of a chess match.
The Orioles will likely make a qualifying offer to outfielder Mark Trumbo, but if he accepts it – an unlikely scenario given the fact that Trumbo can test the free agent market for the first time in his career while coming off the best season of his career at age 30 – the team would happily retain the majors' home run king for an additional year at that cost.
Wieters' scenario is more fuzzy. By accepting the qualifying offer last offseason, he gained the opportunity to show he was healthy and recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2014 so he could test the free-agent market again this offseason and have a better chance at a richer, multi-year deal.
Wieters started 111 games behind the plate this past season, and threw out nearly 35 percent of potential baserunners – besting the 29 percent league average – so the argument could be made he did exactly that, and given the thin market on free-agent catchers, he could be in line for a four-year deal at age 30.
Having said that, Wieters' familiarity with the Orioles organization – the only team he's ever known – played a part in his decision to return last year. And he'd have 17.2 million reasons to extend his Orioles career one more year with the opportunity to raise his stock again.
Also, if Wieters rejected the offer, being attached to it could affect his market value because teams have been hesitant to give up their top unprotected pick to sign a qualifying-offer free agent. The top 10 picks in the draft are protected.
Before making the offer, the Orioles must weigh whether their investment in Wieters last year was worth it, and whether the possibility of investing a total of $33 million in Wieters over a two-year span is also worth it.
The question of whether Wieters is worth the $17.2 million the Orioles could pay him is a difficult one. The club began the offseason unlikely to make Wieters a qualifying offer, and that's still the most likely scenario heading into Monday, but it's a decision the Orioles have discussed often in recent days.
Wieters is one of the team's unquestioned leaders, a homegrown former first-rounder who developed into one of the Orioles' cornerstone players. He is the second longest tenured player on the current roster behind center fielder Adam Jones. His calm demeanor keeps his teammates on an even keel.
On the field, the catching position might be the most difficult to evaluate because it involves so many factors, not just hitting and defense, but throwing out baserunners, calling a game, handling a pitching staff and framing pitches.
If he is paid $17.2 million, Wieters would be the third-highest-paid catcher in the game in 2017, trailing only San Francisco's Buster Posey ($22.18 million) and Toronto's Russell Martin ($18 million).
Posey is arguably the best all-around catcher in the game, as shown by his 4.0 wins above replacement (WAR), a statistic that evaluates a player's value both offensively and defensively. Martin's offensive numbers last season (.231/.335/.398, 20 homers, 62 RBIs) were more comparable to those of Wieters (.243/.302/.409, 17 homers, 66 RBIs). Martin's 1.8 WAR last season, according to FanGraphs, was slightly higher than Wieters' 1.7. Martin will be entering the third year of a five-year, $82 million deal with Toronto.
Other catchers who are comparable include Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina (2.4 WAR, making $14.2 million in 2017) and the Yankees' Brian McCann (1.3 WAR, making $17 million in 2017).
Wieters' 34.8 percentage for throwing out potential baserunners ranked ninth in the majors and his catcher's ERA of 3.98 was seventh best in baseball. While Wieters was charged with just one passed ball, he struggled with balls in the dirt during the season.
Still, Wieters heads a weak free agent class among catchers. The only other free-agent backstop on a similar level is former Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, but his market will be hurt by a late-season torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Other free agent catchers include Seattle's Chris Iannetta and Colorado's Nick Hundley, both of whom could become Orioles targets in preparation for life after Wieters.
Current backup Caleb Joseph is solid defensively and this time last season – he filled in for Wieters well when he missed parts of the 2014 and '15 seasons with Tommy John surgery -- the club was confident in handing the starting catcher duties to Joseph when making Wieters the qualifying offer.
Joseph had a dramatic regression offensively, spotlighted by the fact that he did not record an RBI in 141 plate appearances last year after hitting 11 homers and 49 RBIs in 100 games in 2015, but he also dealt with a scary testicular injury in May after getting hit by a foul tip. But Joseph's growth defensively – he was mentored by catching coordinator Don Werner and Orioles bench coach John Russell – was modeled after Wieters, and in some ways, particularly in pitch framing, Joseph rates better than Wieters.
Despite the fact that Wieters has been a longtime presence behind the plate, Orioles pitchers have just as much comfort throwing to Joseph. Joseph threw out 31.3 percent of baserunners and owned a 4.28 catcher's ERA. According to StatCorner, Joseph recorded 2.7 runs above average through pitch framing. Wieters' runs above average was a minus-7.3.
Ultimately, the biggest question the Orioles will likely ask themselves in arriving at the decision of whether to make Wieters an offer is not whether he's worth the money, but whether they can afford the risk that he isn't.
One of the Orioles' greatest strengths in recent years has been that they had payroll flexibility because they hadn't committed very much long-term money. But after inking Davis and reliever Darren O'Day to long-term deals as well as assuming more payroll with the acquisitions of pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley, along with sizable arbitration raises to players like third baseman Manny Machado and pitchers Chris Tillman and Zach Britton that are likely to reach eight figures, the Orioles have more money committed to the 2017 roster to controlled players than ever.
Again, there's no guarantee Wieters would take the offer, and the Orioles then would get a draft pick. But the possibility he could, combined with the commitment it would create, might be enough alone for the Orioles to not make Wieters a qualifying offer.
Top prospect Chance Sisco is waiting in the wings, and even though he's earmarked for Triple-A Norfolk, he will receive a long look this spring. Perhaps a plan to pursue a cheaper stopgap like Iannetta or Hundley -- who would help hold the spot until Sisco earns a shot -- could make more sense financially and not handcuff the Orioles at a position of value, especially since they believe they have other options that include Joseph, reserve Francisco Pena or Triple-A Norfolk backstop Audry Perez.
If Wieters is made an offer, he will have until Nov. 14 to weigh it, and in that time, his agent, Scott Boras, can evaluate his market for a long-term deal. As of Monday, free agents can sign with any team. Last year, Boras didn't see that market as bountiful, but given Wieters' progress from Tommy John surgery, that could change this offseason.