Coming off their first playoff berth in 15 years, it's been a quiet offseason for the Baltimore Orioles.
Rather than add high-priced impact players to a team that won 93 games and earned a wild-card playoff spot in the American League, the O's decided to generally bring back the same team for 2013 and build around their core of young talent.
But to stay competitive in the AL East and contend for the postseason, Baltimore will have to make sure that young nucleus stays together. The Orioles took a major step in that direction last May, signing center fielder Adam Jones to a six-year, $85.5 million contract extension.
Up next for general manager Dan Duquette (who, along with manager Buck Showalter, also agreed to a new contract) is locking catcher Matt Wieters down to a long-term contract. While discussions on such a deal have not begun, Wieters told the Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly that he would like to play with the Orioles for years to come.
The 26-year-old catcher has three seasons of arbitration eligibility, beginning this year, which gives the Orioles some time to work out a deal.
But reaching an agreement sooner would prevent Baltimore from having to pay expensive yearly salary increases through the arbitration process. The Orioles could control costs by buying out Wieters' arbitration seasons and perhaps his first one or two years of free agency.
MLB Trade Rumors' Matt Swartz projects Wieters to earn a $4.6 million salary through arbitration this year, a significant raise from the $500,000 he earned last season. In 2012, Wieters hit .249 with a .764 OPS, 23 home runs and 83 RBI. He's exceeded 20 home runs in each of the past two seasons, displaying impressive power for a catcher.
If Wieters maintains his current level of performance, it's not unreasonable to presume that he could earn $10 million in 2014 and $15 million in 2015.
That gives the Orioles a starting point to work from. Contract talks could begin with a three-year, $30 million offer.
While Mauer might be considered a better pure hitter, Wieters has shown more power and been an excellent defensive catcher in his first four major league seasons.
How does Wieters compare to another of MLB's top catchers, Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants?
Both have played four years in the majors. Wieters has played 200 more games, due to avoiding the serious type of injury that Posey sustained in 2011. He's also hit nearly 20 more home runs with approximately 60 more RBI.
Yet Posey has NL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards on his mantle. He won a batting title this past season.
Wieters has two All-Star appearances and two Gold Glove awards on his résumé. Those honors are impressive, but not quite the same level of achievement—especially when it comes to negotiating salary figures with management.
Something else to consider is that Posey is a "super two" player, earning four years of arbitration eligibility due to the number of games and days spent in the major leagues during his first two seasons. Wieters, according to MLB Trade Rumors, missed qualifying for super two status by 10 days.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, a long-term contract that bought out Wieters' first year of free agency could take the form of a four-year, $48 million deal. Perhaps it could be a five-year, $60 million contract if the Orioles wanted to buy out Wieters' first two free-agent seasons.
Wieters would be 30 years old by the end of such a contract and might be wearing down as a catcher by then. Yet he would still be young enough to sign another multi-year contract.
The Orioles could consider moving Wieters to another less demanding position—perhaps first base or designated hitter—that would allow him to still produce solid offensive numbers in the later stages of his career.
However, Wieters is represented by agent Scott Boras, who typically encourages his clients to go to free agency and maximize their potential earning power. Boras clients also don't usually take so-called hometown discounts with their current teams, opting for the best offer that the open market yields.
But just because Wieters has Boras as his agent doesn't mean he'll automatically go for the huge free-agent payday. As the Sun's Connolly points out, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Jered Weaver and Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez are Boras clients who chose to sign contract extensions rather than enter free agency.
The Orioles are surely hoping for the same sort of decision from Wieters, who has developed close ties with the organization.
His family's offseason home is in Sarasota, Fla., which also happens to be where the Orioles' spring training facilities are located. According to Connolly, Wieters' parents also often drive up to Baltimore from their South Carolina home on weekends to watch their son play.
Wieters has also taken note of those players who spent their entire careers with the Orioles—such as Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer—and the "special" bond they formed with Baltimore and its fans.
But sentiment only goes so far. Establishing a perennial winner in Baltimore and paying him fair market value would surely go a long way toward convincing Wieters that he should spend the rest of his career with the Orioles.
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