Throughout the past few months, one of the more prominent matters of discussion amongst Orioles’ fans and local media has been the impending free agencies of Matt Wieters and Chris Davis (after the 2015 season), and how the Orioles should a[pproach negotiations with their two starters. Do they make big offers after this season, or let them test the free agent waters and see what the market bears. Will Peter Angelos finally open up the purse strings to keep his own starters, or will skyrocketing free agent salaries cause the notorious spendthrift to write them off and task Dan Duquette with replacing their production on a budget? It’s a fair question, but left unasked is whether either is actually worth the commitment, in both dollars and years, that they’ll require.
In Wieters’ case, I remain convinced that it’s a fairly easy call, and the answer is a resounding “NO.” Not that I don’t appreciate the blazing start he’s off to this season, but I’m still skeptical of his long-term value going forward. To be blunt, Wieters has been an average hitter at best over the course of his career, most of his value comes from his defensive ability behind the plate, but catchers historically have not held up well going into their 30’s.
That’s something that should be especially worrisome with Wieters, who is listed at 6’5″ and 240 pounds, and has already put a lot of mileage on his body behind the plate. If all of that wear and tear forces him to reduce the amount of games he catches in the next three or four seasons, or even to move off of the position altogetther and become a regular first baseman/designated hitter, it’s going to be all but impossible for him to be worth the $100 million contract he’s likely to get. And while wasting the dollars isn’t necessarily a huge problem in an uncappe sport, each team is still limited to 25 active roster spots, and being committed to Wieters at 1B/DH on the back end of the contract would be a very real hindrance to building a productive lineup if he’s an average/below average hitter at that point.
Davis’ case is a much trickier one, if only because it’s difficult to know exactly what kind of player Davis is right now. Is he one of the premier hitters in the game, as he was in 2013, or is he primarily a one-dimensional slugger who may turn in to the next Ryan Howard? If it’s the former, or rather if enough teams think he’s that guy, his contract is likely to push upwards of $200 million, and that kind of commitment can indeed be crippling if you’re wrong. I don’t have any real argument to make either way on that at this time, other than to point out that deals of that size for players in their thirties have been bust far more often than they’ve worked out for the team handing them out, and I’d be hard presssed to fault any team who passed as a general rule.
All of which is not to say that the Orioles should just take their money and put it in a safebox for a rainy day, but rather that, if we’re going to demand they lock up core players with long-term deals, I’d much rather see them start with Manny Machado and Chris Tillman than Davis and Wieters. Those are the kind of young, pre-free agency players that teams are increasingly locking up to lucrative but below market deals, and that’s where the value is in handing out 6-8 year contracts. Unlike Davis and Wieters, Machado and Tillman are still young enough, and far enough away from free agency, that they’d be far more likely to be worth the big contracts, and they’re more important pieces of the Orioles’ foundation both in the short and long term anyway.
Plus, as an added bonus, the surplus value of a well-crafted deal would make it easier for Duquette to find a reasonable veteran replacement at first base or catcher if they’re priced out of the market for Davis and/or Wieters.
Finally, from an economic standpoint, this is the way successful franchises are going about setting themselves up for long periods of sustained winning. High priced free agents get a lot of attention, but in an era of scarcity and inflation they’re increasingly becoming an almost inherently bad deal, while buying out the prime years of young, team-controlled players provides a much greater return on investment both in production and monetary value. The Orioles were behind that trend on Wieters and Davis, and now face a decision between letting them walk and paying a premium for 30 somethings who will have some major redflags. They absolutely shouldn’t repeat that mistake with Machado and Tillman (who, admittedly, don’t have the same issues Wieters and Davis had at similar points in their career), and long-term contracts that will make those guys the anchors of the roster for the better part of the next decade should be the top priority at the warehouse this year.