In the beginning of the 2014 season, it appeared that the catching position would be the least of the team’s worries. Through May 10, Matt Wieters was hitting .308/.339/.500 in 112 plate appearances (a 134 wRC+), along with his normally steady defense. Then came the elbow injury, which turned into Tommy John surgery, which ended his season. Duties behind the plate fell to Nick Hundley (acquired through a trade with the Padres), Caleb Joseph, and Steve Clevenger. Not a single one of Wieters’ replacements hit even a little bit (all had a wRC+ of 72 or 73), but Joseph was able to provide good value through excellent defense, particularly when it came to pitch framing.
|Matt Wieters (photo via Keith Allison)|
The surprising play of Joseph led some to wonder whether it would benefit the team to trade Wieters this offseason. Since Wieters will be a free agent following 2015, it may make sense to see what kind of return the Orioles could get for him. If you factor in his projected salary (MLB Trade Rumors expects Wieters to get $7.9 million in his final year of free agency), then exploring the trade market for Wieters could make sense.
Hopefully you already knew this, but Matt Wieters is a very valuable player (15.4 career fWAR in 5+ seasons). Having said that, it’s hard to say what kind of return the Orioles could get for him. On one hand, there are several teams who could use an upgrade behind the plate and Wieters is a catcher that gives you above average offense and defense at a premium position. On the other hand, he only has one more year of team control and he’s coming off a major injury. Speculating the return of a trade never works out well, but I’d cautiously guess that at this time it may consist of a B level prospect and a lottery ticket in the low minors, although the deviation in that estimate is high.
If the Orioles decide to trade Wieters, they can replace him via free agency, through a separate trade, or internally. Russell Martin is the premier free agent on the catching market. However, he’ll be 32 years old, will cost more in money (and years) than Wieters, and will cost a draft pick, making him an unlikely replacement. After Martin, the free agent market for catchers shakes out like this:
|The free agent catching market after Russell Martin (photo via Moyan Brenn)|
Additionally, it doesn’t make sense to trade for a major league starting catcher, when you just traded away your major league starting catcher, so that doesn’t appear to be a viable option either. This leaves the Orioles filling a potential catching vacancy internally, most likely with Caleb Joseph.
Outside of a magical five-game stretch in August where he hit 5 of his 9 home runs, Joseph didn’t impress with the bat, hitting .207/.264/.354 (a 72 wRC+) in 275 PAs. However, he was worth 0.8 fWAR, on the strength of his defense. Having only played in the majors for essentially half a season, Joseph’s defensive numbers are subject to a small sample, but if you compare his Fangraphs Defense number to Wieters per every 500 PAs, he comes out ahead by almost 4.5 runs. However, that the Defense statistic at Fangraphs doesn’t include pitch framing, something that Joseph excelled at in 2014.
According to Baseball Prospectus, Joseph saved an additional 12.1 runs through framing in 2014. Projected over 500 PAs, that comes out to 22 runs saved. For comparison, Wieters has averaged 2.6 framing runs saved per 500 PAs over his career. When you include the additional value of pitch framing, the overall value of Joseph and Wieters is virtually the same, as our own Jon Shepherd explained quite well back in August.
Despite the appearance that Joseph will provide similar value, I don’t believe the Orioles should trade Wieters this offseason for several reasons.
- Trading Wieters this offseason is basically the definition of selling low. Granted, most teams would love to trade for him, but I’d be surprised if any team would offer a package of players that a player like Wieters would normally command.
- Paying Wieters the projected $7.9 million in 2015 won’t hurt the team’s budget, especially after a 2014 trip to the American League Championship Series. In fact, unless they need to clear some payroll to bring in Yasmany Tomas, there isn’t a free agent on the market (at a position of Baltimore’s need) who is worth using the additional money on.*
- Taking Wieters out of the lineup in favor of Joseph could pose a problem, especially if the Orioles plan on keeping Jonathan Schoop at second base. And although it didn’t seem to be too much of a problem for most of 2014, two everyday players with OBPs around .250 are two too many.
- Despite an outstanding defensive showing, Joseph’s 2014 season (and major league career) was based off a very small sample size. Considering his well-below average bat, the Orioles would need to be very confident in Joseph’s defensive abilities to name him the starter based on 82 games of defensive data, especially since he didn’t carry a reputation of a defensive catcher throughout his minor league career.
There’s an argument to be made that trading Matt Wieters (and allowing Caleb Joseph to be the starting catcher) is a sound strategy to strengthen the team’s future outlook without sacrificing the opportunity to be competitive in 2015. However, for the reasons outlined above, it’s not an argument I can fully support. Matt Wieters should be the Orioles' 2015 opening day catcher, and if Caleb Joseph can repeat his defensive accomplishments, it will make it that much easier for the Orioles to allow him to leave via free agency. That being said, I think now may be the perfect time to try and sign Wieters to an extension.