Matt Wieters slid his arms through the sleeves of a jersey that didn't belong to the Orioles for the first time as a professional Friday. His familiar No. 32 was on the back, but the red spring training jersey of the Washington Nationals was anything but familiar.
A staple of the Orioles’ recent resurgence, Wieters has known nothing but orange and black since he was a first-round draft pick a decade ago and immediately designated the franchise’s savior. But the Orioles never made an offer to their cornerstone catcher in free agency this offseason, and Wieters was forced to look forward to the next chapter of his baseball career.
After waiting all offseason for a deal, Wieters signed a two-year contract with the Nationals guaranteeing up to $21 million in base salary that includes an opt-out following this season, ending his eight-year tenure with the Orioles. During that time, he rose from being a super-hyped top prospect to a two-time Gold Glove winner and four-time All-Star, as well as one of the clubhouse’s top leaders. But his career still left fans anticipating another level.
“It’s all I know,” Wieters said of being an Oriole just before starting his first workout with the Nationals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches complex.
In recent years, the Orioles have invested in retaining their core players in hopes of building on three trips to the playoffs in the past five seasons. But Wieters’ chapter ended without him realizing his career-long hopes of bringing a championship to Baltimore.
“I’ve looked at it like I’m not writing the story anyway,” Wieters said Friday. “God is writing the story and for whatever reason, he wanted me in Washington this year, and I’m more than excited that he wanted me to play here.”
Still, this offseason has been Wieters’ biggest lesson regarding the business of baseball. He quickly accepted the Orioles’ $15.8 million qualifying offer last season, but it became clear that the club turned the page on Wieters not only when it didn’t make him another qualifying offer – this time for $17.2 million – but didn’t proceed with any significant negotiations.
In some ways, he wasn't surprised. He saw another homegrown Oriole, Nick Markakis, unable to reach an agreement to return two offseasons ago. And even though the Orioles have retained sluggers Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo in back-to-back offseasons, Wieters was reminded that baseball is a business.
“Back in ’14, you saw it with Nick, who was just as big a part of that organization,” Wieters said. “[There’s] still a business side to it and whenever an organization thinks they can win a different way, they’re going to take it. I always wanted to play for the same team my whole career, but eight good years is eight good years. It’s God's plan and I’m not going to look back on what ifs -- what if I would have been in Baltimore or what if I would have been [this or] that – because we’ve been very fortunate just to be in America and be able to play a game.”
Wieters said he was prepared for his his time in Baltimore to likely close at the end of last season. And once the club signed free agent Welington Castillo to a club-friendly, two-year, $13 million deal in December, it became obvious that the Orioles were moving away from Wieters.
While Wieters went into the new year unsigned, there was still some buzz that he might return, especially given the Orioles' penchant for late deals into spring training. And even though there really wasn’t a spot for him and there was no sign of negotiations, inside the Orioles clubhouse, players still held out hope Wieters would eventually report to Sarasota. Instead, he participated in his first workout with the Nationals on Friday, throwing himself into rundown defensive drills and taking batting practice on the back fields of Washington's sparkling new spring training complex.
“It’s hard, because at the end of last year, I kind of had this feeling that more than likely it would not be the place that I would be at [this] year,” Wieters said. “But at the same time, until you’re signed and official there’s nothing you can really set in stone. … It was something to where mentally I had moved on at the end of the year, but at the same time, it was still [my] first team. … For me to be able to play there as long as I did is a real rarity in today’s game, and I was very fortunate to play with those guys and in that organization for as long as did.”
In December, Wieters’ agent, Scott Boras, dictated the pace by saying that the catcher likely wouldn’t sign until January. The Orioles weren’t going to wait until then to have their catching situation resolved and pursued Castillo. But also, Wieters was injured on Nov. 1 when he suffered a gash in his left wrist/forearm area when he dropped a 5-gallon glass jug of water at his home in Atlanta, a setback that held him out of baseball activities for 10 weeks. Wieters said it could have been much worse.
Wieters said Boras updated him regularly on the peculiar slow-evolving free-agent market, but preached patience to his client as spring training began and he remained without a job.
"Once spring training gets going and you get into February, it’s a little awkward feeling of not being with the guys, with the team,” Wieters said. “I think that’s what you get itchy about more than anything: sitting at home and not being able to go in the training room and talk with the guys and see how they’re doing and kind of get focused toward the season. It all worked out eventually.”
Wieters said he never received a formal offer from the Orioles, and when asked whether he believed he ever truly had the opportunity to return to Baltimore, he said, “Not really.”
“It was something where maybe it will pop up. It was never really on the table for anything that was very set in stone or concrete that I would be going back there,” Wieters said. “It was never, 'Oh gosh, we didn’t think about this. Maybe we’re going back to Baltimore.’ It never got to that point.”
Even though it took too long for his liking, Wieters sounded content with landing with the Nationals, who have become an annual World Series contender. He will hit behind former National League MVP Bryce Harper and catch a staff that includes Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
He played with Scherzer on the U.S. national team as collegians in 2005 and he doesn't need to look far from his corner locker in the Nats clubhouse to see old Orioles teammates Matt Albers and Jeremy Guthrie a few lockers down.
Having played in the American League for his entire career, he will have to get adjusted to the NL, but he feels like he knows more about the Nationals than any other NL team because of the annual Beltways rivalry series between the Orioles and Nats.
"It’s always been a fun battle because just the talent matchup has always been something that’s exciting to see," Wieters said of facing the Nats annually. "And when you watch from other dugouts, you see teams that have a lot of talent and you’re like, ‘We’re going to have to bring our A game to beat those guys,’ and the Nationals have always been that team."
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said he believes his team knows a lot about Wieters' attributes as well. Rizzo not only lauded Wieters' ability to switch-hit with power, block balls and throw out runners, but also game-calling, the way he handles a staff and his clubhouse leadership.
"He's a guy I know [Orioles manager] Buck [Showalter] leaned on heavily as a leader in the clubhouse and on the field," Rizzo said. "He fills a lot of things for us. ... He's a guy who has a great resume and a great track record. ... He knew a lot about our league, a lot about our division and a lot about our organization."
Rizzo said his club expressed interest in Wieters early in the offseason, but nothing progressed and discussions went "dormant" for several weeks before picking up again late in the offseason. The Nationals lost starter Wilson Ramos to free agency, and signed Wieters despite acquiring Derek Norris to be their starter and having five catchers on their 40-man roster.
"Early in the offseason, teams try to fill their wish lists on what their roster needs and if players aren't going out there and jumping out early, people fill what they're trying to do and I think he got caught up in that situation," Rizzo said. "There were teams he fit for, but throughout the process, those team fill up and there are a limited amount of teams to go with."
Despite the agonizing wait, Wieters still received an attractive deal. It wasn't the four-year pact he might have wanted, but he still receives the security of a two-year deal with the flexibility of being able to test the market again next offseason.
And Wieters insisted that his departure won’t take away from the fond memories of playing in Baltimore – seeing the franchise go from a moribund loser to annual contender, as well as friendships he believes he will maintain by remaining relatively nearby during the season.
“It will be different – exciting different – but at the same time, that clubhouse over there [in Baltimore], I loved," Wieters said. "And it will be different for me for going to a new clubhouse for the first time. Knowing these guys, they’re great guys and I’ve known them playing against them, but it’s going to take time to sort of jell and that’s the one thing in baseball in general – you see it even when guys finish playing -- the clubhouse is what you miss, and we had a great one over there.
"I’m going to miss those guys and I’m always going to wish them the best and it’s something to where I’m confident in meeting the guys I have around here and the guys I [already] know here, that it’s a great clubhouse here, too.”