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Wieters could be playing his last three weeks for Orioles

Wieters could be playing his last three weeks for Orioles
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters is pictured on Sept. 2, 2015, at Camden Yards. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Matt Wieters has spent most of his life studying complex situations with an engraver's penchant for detail. He's always processed any available information before cautiously proceeding to the next step.

So, yes, Wieters understands the gravity of the next few weeks and months. If he told you otherwise, he wouldn't be honest — and look-you-in-the-eye honesty is one of Wieters' unquestioned attributes.

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The 29-year-old Orioles catcher, who has been with the organization since being drafted in 2007, is facing a crossroads. A pending free agent, he could be down to his final three weeks in the only uniform he has worn as a professional.

He's thinking about it, but not in the way you might imagine.

"I think about enjoying this last month and see where it goes from there," Wieters said. "I feel like my situation here has been more than what anybody could ever hope for, for the group of guys I came in with, with the way we've been able to go from the bottom to the top. I look at it as I'm going to enjoy this last month and then completely take a step back and see where it lies from there."

For some it's a line. For Wieters it's his persona. He's never been one to be overwhelmed. Remember, this is the guy whose major league debut was announced on MASN, the Orioles' network, by the normally understated Andy MacPhail three days before it occurred.

Wieters' first game, May 29, 2009, drew 42,704 fans — more than the combined attendance of the three previous home games — and included more than 10,000 walk-up sales. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as "The Perfect Catch" at age 23 and made the first of three American League all-star teams at 25.

So he's taking his potential departure from the Orioles in stride, not avoiding the subject but not obsessing over it either. It's a decision that ultimately will occur with time, he concedes.

His manager, though, is in purposeful denial. Losing long-time outfielder Nick Markakis to free agency last offseason was tough on Buck Showalter.

"I try not to (think about it), I try not to. I had to with Nick, cause he's not here anymore," Showalter said. "I try not to think about things like that until they happen. We all have personal feelings about everything, but you don't let it stand in the way of making good decisions."

Wieters might be the most interesting case among the club's six pending free agents: Chris Davis, Darren O'Day, Wei-Yin Chen, Steve Pearce and Gerardo Parra. Wieters is the only homegrown Oriole. The others have switched teams at least once; Chen switched countries.

A South Carolina native, Wieters has known nothing but the Orioles since leaving Georgia Tech as one of the most-hyped prospects in baseball history.

"Baltimore fans, Baltimore Orioles baseball has been my life as a major league player, a professional baseball player," Wieters said. "Over my eight years with Baltimore, I couldn't have asked for a better experience."

His market value is difficult to determine. He's a 6-foot-5, 230-pound switch-hitter with power and two Gold Gloves who doesn't turn 30 until May. In December 2013, catcher Brian McCann signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the New York Yankees heading into his age 30 season – and most scouts considered Wieters the better all-around catcher at that time.

Making $8.3 million this season in his final year of arbitration, Wieters appeared to be heading toward a landmark contract just a few years ago. There were thoughts within the industry that Wieters' agent, Scott Boras, would be targeting the $23 million, average annual value of Minnesota's Joe Mauer more than McCann's $17 million average.

However, those lofty expectations for Wieters — statistics wise — were never reached. In 2014 he was limited to just 26 games because of a right elbow injury that ultimately required season-ending Tommy John surgery. He was hoping to return for this year's Opening Day, but didn't make it back until June 5. He has started at catcher in consecutive games just twice this season.

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There's a lot of unknown surrounding how quickly catchers bounce back from elbow surgery, and the slow nature of the return has been frustrating for Wieters. He said he's come to realize that every player who has the surgery rebounds differently, and the need for a catcher to throw so many times in consecutive games makes his situation somewhat unique.

"The back-to-backs are tough. I wanted to have them sooner. And I'm actually starting to feel that, back-to-back, I'm very much able to do. But it's a surgery that you don't exactly know the timeline," Wieters said. "They can put a kind of estimated timeline, but until you see how your arm is feeling the next day you really don't have any idea."

Missing time

He's held his own offensively since returning, with six homers and 18 RBIs while hitting .263 in 213 at-bats. But he's played in just 62 games and caught 43 times – which could hamper his free-agent marketability since his primary value is as a behind-the-plate stalwart who had been durable before the elbow surgery.

Wieters has shown glimpses of his old self, but his caught-stealing percentage is 27 percent, which is below league average this year and below his career mark of 32 percent. In comparison, McCann is at 40 percent this year and the Orioles' Caleb Joseph is at 31 percent.

In one sense, it's remarkable that Wieters is even close to league average just 15 months removed from elbow surgery. But whether his arm returns to pre-surgery will be something teams have to consider.

One possibility is the Orioles offer Wieters a qualifying offer — a one-year deal expected to be worth in excess of $16 million in 2016 — which would allow him to re-establish himself before returning to free agency for 2017. If he rejects the offer, the Orioles would get a compensation pick after the first round of the 2016 draft.

If offered, odds are he would reject it, even though it would nearly double his salary. In the three previous years under the current system, none of the 34 players who received the offer accepted it. And Boras has been particularly outspoken about how the process penalizes elite players, since any team that signs a free agent attached to a qualifying offer forfeits a top pick.

"I haven't really thought about it that much. I've thought about it, you know, as a player you see parts of qualifying offers that can hurt some guys or not hurt some guys," Wieters said. "But the thing about it is that'll have to be a decision that we think about at the end of the year, after the year is over and make our best judgment on it."

Wieters was sidelined for three days over the weekend because of a sore left wrist, but returned Tuesday. Showalter said he could sense urgency from Wieters to get back on the field — but only because he was desperate to help the Orioles' emerge from a 3-15 skid. They won Tuesday in New York and again Wednesday.

"He wanted to play (Tuesday). And I don't know if he was really 100 percent, but he said, 'I need to play.' And not selfishly, it was for team reasons," Showalter said. "He's pretty much an open book."

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Always involved

Wieters couldn't participate in last year's postseason run because of the surgery, but he stayed involved, scouting some for the postseason and mentoring Joseph, who is only a month younger.

The slow comeback process has been a little easier to take, Wieters said, because of the way Joseph has performed this year as well as Steve Clevenger's improvement defensively. Perhaps those developments, however, will spell the end for Wieters in Baltimore, since there are plenty of holes to fill this offseason.

But like Markakis, Wieters' leadership, steady influence and professionalism has been immeasurable. His departure would create another hole in a clubhouse that polices itself and charges together toward one winning goal.

"He's been my constant ever since I've been here, the guy behind the plate, the one that's calling the pitches for me, the one that's getting me back on track when I need to do it," said starter Chris Tillman, who first worked with Wieters in 2008 in Bowie. "I can't tell you how much he has helped me and I know how much he's helped the other pitchers, too. It's going to be tough if he is gone, but there's a chance that he's back."

There have been no real talks between the Orioles and Wieters' representation regarding an extension. Partially because that's the policy of executive vice president Dan Duquette, who generally doesn't discuss contracts in-season. But it raises the question that maybe this is it for one of the most popular Orioles of the last 15 years,

Because Wieters has a house in Atlanta and he and his wife, Maria, met there as undergraduates at Georgia Tech, fair speculation is that Wieters could join an Atlanta Braves team he grew up cheering for, while also re-joining Markakis.

Wieters, though, is keeping his options open.

"You want to see where an organization is going, no matter what team you're looking at. I think winning to me is something that is priceless," Wieters said. "Ultimately, I have to decide what's best for my family and I. And, really, what's God leading me to do."

Baltimore, he said, is certainly in the mix.

"I love Baltimore. My wife and (son) Mav love Baltimore. So, ultimately, this is where I'd like to win a championship," Wieters said. "If that's what I see, and it all works out, I'd love to be back."

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