On Friday, Matt Wieters decided to accept the Qualifying Offer. The Orioles were extremely hesitant to make this offer and decided to do so only after determining that it was highly unlikely he would accept. A number of publications also predicted that Matt Wieters would reject the Qualifying Offer because he would receive a lucrative deal in free agency as did most of the writers in our off-season series. What I found interesting is that looking at what Wieters' free agent comparables received in free agency shows why he wasn't going to earn as large of a deal as some had thought and why his decision made sense.
One of the weaknesses of using a comparable model is that there are relatively few good players that become free agents each year and therefore there are only a few players that can be used for such an analysis. It is far easier to build a model using WAR because it ignores position and therefore has a large sample size. As such, this method requires the use of comparables that aren't necessarily similar to the player in question.
Here's a list of all the catchers since 2010 from MLBTR's Transaction Tracker that have signed a free agent contract for more than $10M total. There are only six names on the list, of which two signed deals between $10-20M and another two signed deals between $20 and $26M. It would appear that most good catchers don't make it to free agency.
The players I felt are Matt Wieters (30) comparables are Brian McCann (30), Russell Martin (32), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (29) and John Buck (30). Since Wieters has been injured so much over the past two years, I use his last four years to give a better impression of what teams may be receiving.
Matt Wieters had better defensive numbers than Brian McCann but worse offensive numbers. If one looks at the three years before McCann became a free agent, but four years before Wieters became a free agent then they have a similar amount of plate appearances. McCann clearly has more power than Wieters as McCann hit a home run over 4% of the time in each of the years in the sample while Wieters only had McCann power in 2014 when he played 26 games.
The problem is that Wieters had great defensive value in 2012 and 2013 but limited defensive value in 2014 and 2015. If Wieters isn't able to fully recover and become an elite defensive catcher then he's clearly not as good as McCann. As a league-average batter, Wieters is valuable offensively playing catcher but has less value as a DH. If nothing else, the Yankees knew that McCann could have some value as a 1B or DH if he was no longer able to catch. The same simply isn't true for Wieters.
Russell Martin has actually signed two free agent contracts in his career. His first deal was for 2 years and $17 million after leaving the Yankees at 30 and his second deal was for 5 years and $85 million after leaving the Pirates in 2014 at 32. Martin was a rare player who didn't play up to his potential until he turned 30. Once 30, he was able to keep his offense steady while becoming elite defensively. More to the point, he was able to have his career year right before becoming a free agent in which he was elite offensively and defensively.
In the three years before Martin signed his first contract, he had inferior offensive and defensive production compared to Wieters. However, in the three years before he signed his second contract, he was superior both offensively and defensively. Part of this could be because Wieters was injured though. Wieters was elite in 2012 and 2013 and if that trend continued in 2014 and 2015 then he may have been better defensively then Martin.
The third comparable is Salty. Salty was able to sign a 3 year and $21 million deal due to a strong performance right before he hit free agency. This comparison is the worst for Wieters because Wieters has less power than Salty and worse offensive production. Wieters almost definitely has more value than Salty because of his superior defensive abilities provided that he is able to produce as he has in the past.
The fourth comparable is John Buck. Buck was a mostly mediocre catcher who happened to have a career year in 2010 and took advantage of it in order to sign a three year deal for $18M. Buck is probably worse, both offensively and defensively than Wieters, but his statistics compare reasonably favorably. The fact is that Buck had a better wOBA and a similar wRC+ in the three years prior to his deal than Wieters has had in the past four years. Both players are both huge question marks; teams were interested in Buck because they were hoping he could repeat his career year, while teams interested in Wieters were hoping he could repeat his performance in the years that he was elite. Players that can seriously be compared to John Buck will have serious issues in free agency if saddled by a qualifying offer.
This shows the challenges that Wieters would have faced if he made it to free agency. His offensive profile is good for a catcher, but isn't good enough to compare favorably with catchers that signed big deals. His 2014 is his best year offensively, while his 2015 compares reasonably well with his 2012 and 2013 offensive performance. Rather, it compares with players that signed 2 or 3 year deals at less than $10M per year which probably isn't what he's looking for.
His current free agent value rests solely on his ability to play defense, which is problematic because it isn't clear that he can catch for 100 games a season let alone 140. Even if he is able to do so, it isn't clear whether he can be elite defensively like he was in 2012 or 2013. Teams would probably be willing to offer him a short-term deal in order to find out, but he almost certainly wouldn't receive elite catcher money. It's one thing to pay a player based on past performance, but quite another to pay a player based on his performance from three seasons ago.
Wieters was probably in-line to receive a three or four year deal at $12M per year due to his average offensive profile. With a strong year offensively and defensively, he's likely to be able to earn a five or even six year deal at about $17M per year in next years' free agent market. If he's successful, then he'll make a huge sum of money. Even if he's just average next year, teams would still be more certain about what they'd receive for signing him. At the moment, he's really a huge question mark.
That said, Wieters was able to catch 55 games last year while playing 500 innings. David Ross, considered an elite backup catcher, plays a similar amount of innings per year and is far inferior offensively. Both Wieters and Ross are considered veteran leaders and are valued for their leadership presence as well as any production that they can produce.
If Ross was able to sign a 2 year and $5 million dollar contract last year, then Wieters should be able to sign a deal for 3 years and $15 million even if he can only catch 60 games a year. Combine that with the fact that he's receiving $16 million this year and even his non-injury worst case scenario will result in him losing $10-$20M over three or four years compared to entering free agency this year.
On the other hand, if he's successful this year, then he may earn an extra $40-50 million by taking a risk and signing a qualifying offer. Wieters is in a situation where the downside of taking a qualifying offer is limited.
Personally, I felt that Wieters would reject the qualifying offer because he's in a situation where he could probably receive a one year deal similar to the qualifying offer in free agency while hoping that some team gave him a lucrative long term deal. Instead he decided that he enjoys it here in Baltimore and would rather take the sure thing instead of a risk.