Matt Wieters' current unemployment worries Orioles players on several levels

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Matt Wieters was a hot topic at Orioles FanFest last weekend, but not for the reason you'd think.

Matt Wieters’ absence was mentioned often last weekend at Orioles FanFest, but not for the reason you might think.

Yes, some players noted that their longtime catcher being unsigned meant the door was open for a return to the Orioles, even if the presence of Welington Castillo, Francisco Pena and Caleb Joseph makes that improbable.

But more noteworthy, the fact that Wieters hasn't found a home as February arrives is another example that teams seem to value young, cost-controlled talent over veteran free agents.

To several Orioles who spoke on the topic at the otherwise joyous FanFest event, the fact that a four-time All-Star such as Wieters is available is quite troubling. It represents the overall slow-developing market in which many veterans remain unsigned two weeks shy of spring training, and price tags plunged for those who have signed.

“I think for all free agents this year, it’s been a little different,” Joseph said. “It took [Mark] Trumbo quite a while to sign. … Look, when you get into the big leagues, all you think about is just being here the next day. You continue, and you go the next day. Then you get a year in, and you start thinking about [salary] arbitration. Then you get to arbitration and you start thinking about free agency. I can’t imagine what it’s like. I’ve talked to Matt about it. It’s got to be tough, wanting to get to free agency and feel like you’ve earned a little bit of security, earned maybe a three- or four-year deal or whatever it is, and then it’s not happening on your time. It’s got to be tough.”

Joseph said he has spoken to Wieters a few times, and “it’s been weird,” but he’s confident Wieters will land in a good spot. Wieters is the top free-agent catcher remaining, and it could be argued he has been all along.

Wilson Ramos, the former Washington Nationals catcher, signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays during winter meetings for $12.5 million, and he won’t be ready until midseason after tearing his ACL in late September.

The biggest free-agent catcher deal has gone to light-hitting glove man Jason Castro, whose three-year, $24.5 million deal with the Minnesota Twins is mostly owed to his pitch-framing skills.

Wieters came up with a healthy reputation as a defender, but that has diminished over the years. His calling card is his bat, and last season he hit .243 with a .711 OPS and 17 home runs.

The expectation of a massive contract might be coming from his past performances. Teams are becoming increasingly wary of paying for that, though, instead opting to project a player’s trajectory into the future, and therefore pay for expected performance.

Still, as someone who waited until January last year to sign, first baseman Chris Davis said he thought Wieters’ case would be different.

“I didn’t see it playing out like this at all,” Davis said. “I thought it was going to be a lot quicker process, just the whole free agency process this year with the number of guys that were out there and the quality of players that are out there.

"I feel for Matty right now. It’s really tough not knowing where you’re going to be, especially in his situation, being a catcher coming off an injury two years ago and all the hard work that he’s put in to get back to being the player that he is. I wish him all the best.”

As both Joseph and Davis noted, Wieters isn’t alone. Sluggers such as Trumbo, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista — the top power hitters available in free agency — all saw depressed markets this offseason. More well-rounded players such as Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler found jobs quickly.

Other sluggers, such as National League home run leader Chris Carter, Pedro Alvarez and Mike Napoli, are still looking for jobs as spring training nears.

Trumbo, who came out of free agency with a three-year, $37.5 million contract in the place he said he wanted to stay all along, said it could be signaling a troubling trend around the game. While the new collective bargaining agreement will make it less prohibitive to sign free agents who reject qualifying offers, teams continue to put an emphasis on player development and grooming their own dynamic, cost-controlled young stars instead of paying for older ones.

“I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled about where things are going, I guess, for free agents,” Trumbo said Friday. “I don’t want to say Type B free agents, but some of the guys who aren’t quite as elite. There are still some guys fighting for jobs who are very high level major league players that bring a heck of a lot to the table, and they’re forced to look at one-year, incentive-laden contracts for a fairly low dollar amount, considering the type of seasons they put up.

"And I think for baseball as a whole, it would be nice to, [if] you get to free agency after surviving for six years or if it’s your second go-around, whatever it may be, I feel like it should be a process that rewards you with some security for a number of years if you earn the right to be there. If you haven’t, you have to take what you can get. But I think this year in particular, in my case, there were just a ton of guys who do similar jobs and there weren’t that many of them available.”

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