Matt Wieters, by the numbers:
These catchers are players who teams tend to lock up in long term deals. To consider Wieters' play underwhelming or disappointing seems a bit to harsh for someone who is on par with the best catchers in baseball. With that in mind, it is perfectly reasonable to explore a long term deal with him. Top flight catchers rarely if ever reach the free agent market, so we are provided with several examples of what Wieters might cost with an extension.
The Orioles have taken the tact that so few have when coming into possession of first division catcher. Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, and Yadier Molina were all signed to contracts to circumvent the arbitration process. For Mauer and Molina, those contracts led to a second contract extension. Russell Martin and Miguel Montero were taken year to year by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively, with Montero being the one who wound up with the long term contract.
Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Mauer, potentially like Wieters, is a face of the franchise. After his second full season, a season that was arguably MVP worthy, the Twins locked Mauer into a contract that would cover his arbitration years. The deal was for 4 years and 40.3 MM (in 2013 value). After a few more MVP level seasons, Mauer signed another extension for 8 years and 202.4 MM (in 2013 value). It was an arguable contract signing at the time due to the amount of money being handed over to a catcher. The idea was that even though a move off of catcher would be necessitated, Mauer hit well enough to be useful at first or left field. Two seasons have passed by on the deal: a poor 2011 where Mauer experienced leg weakness and an elite 2012 where Mauer performed in line with his best seasons.
Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves
In 2006, McCann had the offensive season that Baltimore fans had believed was there for Wieters to have. McCann slashed 333/388/572 with a wRC+ of 142. The Braves decided to reward McCann with a 7 year, 46.8 (in 2013 value) deal that bought out his arbitration years and two free agent years. The contract has proved to be a great investment with problems surfacing only last year when he tore a labrum in his shoulder and suffered hamstring problems. There was some talk about whether the Braves would take on the 2013 season (which was an option year). He will likely not begin the year behind the plate.
Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
These past two seasons have been a major coming out party for Molina as he has now paired power with plate discipline and defense. He is arguably the best catcher in baseball. After the 2007 season, Molina showed himself as a great defensive catcher with some potential for being above average at getting on base. That combination was good enough for the Cardinals to avoid the arbitration process and sign him to a 5 year extension worth 26.1 MM in 2013 value, which also bought him out of two free agent years. In 2011 and 2012, Molina managed to double his isolated power, turning him from an above average catcher to a great one. The Cardinals were impressed enough to sign him to a 6 year, 88 MM deal.
Miguel Montero, Arizona Diamondbacks
Montero's offensive game has some similarities to Wieters. However, Montero's defense is roughly average. The Diamondbacks, unsure with the uneven offensive game, decided to go year-to-year with Montero until he proved himself to them to engage in a long term contract. 2011 and 2012 saw an increase in offensive production along with improved defense led to a 5 year, 60 MM extension. The difference between Montero and Wieters over the next five years is probably worth about two or three wins meaning a value of 10-15 MM.
Russell Martin, Pittsburgh Pirates / New York Yankees
Martin showed good power, plate discipline, and defense when breaking into the Majors. They decided to go year to year into arbitration. Unfortunately for Martin, he began suffering a power outage at the plate as he became a league average hitting catcher. The Dodgers, hurting for money under the previous regime, let go of Martin for nothing. He wound up with the Yankees, who also went year to year. The Yankees, also seemingly under a reduced cost mentality, let Martin go to the Pirates who signed him to a 2 year, 15 MM deal. In my opinion, he is the most underrated free agent signing this past season.
Player Comparison Suggestion
With Wieters making 5.5 MM in 2013, we can assume that he will make 8.25 MM and 11 MM in 2014 and 2015, respectively (based on the 40/60/80 projection of arbitration salaries compared to free agent value). In terms of contract value, I think Miguel Montero and Yadier Molina are the best comparisons here. If Montero is worth 12 MM per year and Molina is worth 15 MM a year, we can project Wieters would have his contract value between those values. This would result in a 5 year extension beginning in 2014 to cost between 55.25 MM to 64.25. Would this be a good value?
In order to predict Wieters' future offensive performance, I used the projected 50th percentile performance values from PECOTA and converted that to a Fangraphs WAR spectrum. To project defense, I took Wieters' current regressed performance based on UZR and applied aging curves that Tom Tango developed. Finally, I converted projected WAR to money using 5 MM/ win in 2013 and assuming a 5% increase each season. For cost, I am using the assumed arbitration values from 2013 to 2015 with market value from 2016 onwards.
Based on the table above, the Orioles look to have plus value in signing Wieters to a deal of upwards to a five year deal beginning in 2014 at a cost of 64.3 MM while bringing back 6.2 MM in value during the bought out free agent years. That value will be negated if the contract is strung out to eight years at 109.3 MM.
Last year, we discussed Adam Jones' contract and how useful it was to sign him long term. The issue with his deal is that Jones was signed to a fair long term deal that did not provide much in terms of savings for the Orioles. The problem with that is that a mid to small market team really cannot afford to pay the going rate for talent. These kinds of team need to get surplus value where they can in order to fill in talent where they are lacking.
With that in mind, I think it makes sense to secure Wieters through his age 32 season. The bet here is that a five year, 64.3 MM extension would yield surplus value of about 6 MM. More significantly, it also places a safe bet that Wieters may enjoy another breakout in the next couple years. There has been some discussion that college catchers who quickly make the jump from the minors to the Majors wind up having their offensive maturation delay a couple seasons. The data is not necessarily robust enough to make that conclusion, but it is a common thought that is bandied about. If Wieters does improve, he does not need to improve much to start asking for 20 MM a year. At that level, he would likely be a prohibitive commodity for the team.