Even though there was little chance Matt Wieters would re-sign with the Orioles this winter, the news that he had agreed to a two-year deal with the Washington Nationals on Tuesday provided some closure for his former manager and teammates.
Not that anyone was holding out hope that he would suddenly appear at the Ed Smith Stadium complex and platoon with new catcher Welington Castillo, but Wieters was a much-loved figure in the Orioles clubhouse. It had become painful for his longtime friends to see him twist in the free-agent wind while they were back in camp.
Many of them kept in touch with him, and manager Buck Showalter phoned and texted him regularly.
“On a personal level, I’m glad that he’s settled in some place,” Showalter said Tuesday. “They’ll be happy with him. He’ll do well for them. I’m glad that Matt doesn’t have that unknown hanging around him, and his family. There’s a lot more going on in his life than baseball.”
It has been a strange journey for a player who was projected out of college as “Joe Mauer with power.” Wieters has been one of the top all-around catchers in the game. But it was almost impossible to live up to the pre-draft hype, especially when his career trajectory was interrupted after two All-Star selections and two Gold Gloves by the elbow injury that cost him most of the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
While he had once seemed destined to sign one of those multiyear mega-contracts upon qualifying for free agency, he felt compelled to accept the Orioles’ one-year qualifying offer in November 2015 in the hope of positioning himself for a big payday this time around.
Well, $21 million over two years (with a second year opt-out) qualifies as a big payday to most anybody, but it certainly isn’t what agent Scott Boras had in mind when this past offseason began. Why the market never really matched up with Wieters is a complicated question, but it’s not like he’s going to spend the next year or two in exile.
He signed with one of the National League’s top World Series contenders and will be catching a terrific pitching staff.
Everyone knows he’ll do just fine in Washington and the Orioles pitching staff is already bonding with Castillo. But reserve catcher Caleb Joseph — whose place on this season’s major league roster probably depended on Wieters not showing up here this week — still was hoping he would return.
“They say that all good things come to an end, right? And I guess until it becomes official, you hold out hope that he’d be an Oriole,” Joseph said. “I guess it’s new beginnings for both of us. The good thing is he’s going to be right down the street. He’ll be playing on MASN2 maybe.
“Matt’s a great human first and foremost. I think that’s the best compliment you can give somebody over the fact that he is such a tremendous baseball player. He’s a great defensive catcher. He’s a leader. He’s a middle-of-the-order switch-hitting guy with power. But more than that, he’s a tremendous guy and I think that’s what I’m going to miss most. Just his influence on and off the field.”
No doubt, some local fans will wonder whether the Orioles might’ve re-signed Wieters if baseball operations chief Dan Duquette had waited out the market the way he did when he signed Nelson Cruz and several other free agents over the past few years. But the Orioles had a vacancy at one of the most important positions on the field and he could not leave that to chance. He got Castillo for a song and made it clear he was looking no further for major league help behind the plate.
Draw your own conclusions. Wieters was a Showalter favorite, but Duquette clearly felt Castillo was a suitable substitute at a time (mid-December) when the price for Wieters still figured to be much higher. It was a decisive move, similar to the acquisition of slugger Mark Trumbo last winter in anticipation of losing first baseman Chris Davis.
Of course, Davis came back anyway, but club officials repeatedly rebuffed any speculation that the Orioles might bring Wieters back to share time with Castillo if the price fell far enough.
Meanwhile, the Nationals always were thought to be on Boras’ dance card, even though they already had acquired veteran catcher Derek Norris this winter and also have major league-ready backups Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino.
The deal seemed to lend some credence to speculation that Boras might take advantage of his good relationship with Nats ownership to find a landing spot for Wieters if he failed to get him an acceptable long-term deal elsewhere.
True or not, that’s how it all turned out.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here,” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.