Baseball's hot stove season has begun to warm, and as the Orioles talk trade with other clubs, perhaps the most intriguing name on the Birds' trade block is catcher Matt Wieters.
Wieters, 27, is two seasons away from free agency. ESPN's Buster Olney reported that when the O's initially approached Wieters' agent, Scott Boras, about a contract extension before the 2013 season, Boras wanted a deal similar to what Joe Mauer received from the Twins in 2010: eight years, $184 million. Needless to say, no deal was consummated.
If Wieters has eyes on a huge free-agent payout in two years, it could make sense for the O's to deal him this winter to make sure he doesn't ultimately walk away for no return. As a two-time Gold Glove winner, Wieters certainly should have value on the trade market; elite defensive catchers don't grow on trees.
But Wieters is also coming off a disappointing offensive season in 2013, when he posted an uninspiring .704 OPS and a career-worst .287 OBP. As a major leaguer, he hasn't developed the prolific bat many fans had hoped he would.
If the Orioles make Wieters available, any potential trade partner will need to have three criteria:
1. A team that's expected to contend in the next two years before Wieters' free agency
2. A team that doesn't already have a quality, established catcher
3. A team that can take on Wieters' salary (which figures to rise above $6 million in arbitration for 2014 and higher still in 2015)
By my count, there are 10 teams that might have varying levels of interest in Wieters.
ATLANTA BRAVES: Here's the team that jumps out most to me as a Wieters destination. The Braves are likely to lose their longtime catcher, Brian McCann, in free agency. They've talked about handing the position to second-year man Evan Gattis or prospect Christian Bethancourt, but Gattis struggles with the glove and Bethancourt struggles with the bat. Wieters would be an intriguing outside option, especially because he has Atlanta ties as a former Georgia Tech player. And the Braves always seem to have a stockpile of quality pitching prospects, which would interest the O's in a trade. Wieters to Atlanta seems like a strong fit.
DETROIT TIGERS: The Tigers are an intriguing potential partner. Although they already have a starting catcher in Alex Avila, his offense has tailed off the past two years, and he doesn't have the defensive reputation of Wieters. With the Tigers having lost the American League Championship Series two years in a row, perhaps they're looking for a catching upgrade to get them over the hump. With the Tigers also looking for an established closer, there's potential here for a multi-player megatrade that would involve Wieters, Avila, Jim Johnson and Tiger starter Rick Porcello (in whom the O's were interested last winter).
BOSTON RED SOX: The defending World Series champions are on the hunt for a catcher with their incumbent starter, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a free agent. The Sox have made an offer to Saltalamacchia and could also be in the mix for McCann. Wieters would fit nicely there, but would the O's be willing to trade him to a team within their own division? The last time the Orioles traded a catcher to the Red Sox -- Javy Lopez in 2006 -- it was essentially a salary dump of a past-his-prime player who was entering the final season of his career. Wieters would be a different story. It's unlikely the O's would want to hand a valuable catcher to the team they're trying to overtake for the division crown, unless the Sox gave the Orioles a huge return in the trade.
NEW YORK YANKEES: Speaking of intradivisional opponents, the Yankees also need a catcher, though it's unclear how much money they're willing to spend until the Alex Rodriguez situation is resolved. And earlier this year, O's manager Buck Showalter infamously said (thinking he was off the record) that Wieters would be playing in pinstripes once he became a free agent. It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Wieters play for the Yankees someday, but again, the O's aren't likely to trade him to a divisional opponent. The Birds haven't made a player-for-player swap with the Yankees since the Jaret Wright deal in 2006.
TAMPA BAY RAYS: Tampa Bay could certainly use a catching upgrade from Jose Molina, but Wieters' salary might be a bit too rich for the penny-pinching Rays. Still, the O's might be more willing to trade with the Rays than any of their other AL East competitors, considering Tampa Bay's impressive stockpile of quality young pitchers.
TEXAS RANGERS: The Rangers re-signed veteran catcher Geovany Soto and named him their starter as of now, but word is they're still on the prowl for another option, such as McCann. It's not a stretch to think they'd be interested in Wieters. But would Texas be gun-shy about trading with the Orioles after coming out on the losing end of several recent trades (such as the Chris Davis deal)?
CINCINNATI REDS: The Reds seem to have tired of incumbent catcher Ryan Hanigan and could hand the position to Devin Mesoraco ... or, with their window of contending possibly closing soon, they could pursue a more established option in Wieters and take another run at the pennant. A potential deal could include veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips, whom the Reds are shopping, but the O's would likely want prospects as well.
SEATTLE MARINERS: "But Paul," you're saying, "the Mariners don't fit the criteria. They're not going to be contenders in the next two years." Well, I agree with you, but the M's have an established history of making ill-advised trades in hopes of making a miraculous run (and the O's took full advantage with the Erik Bedard deal before the 2008 season). Although the Mariners have prospect Mike Zunino slated to catch, he comes with plenty of question marks -- including an inability to get on base in Triple-A -- and the M's might prefer to give him more seasoning in the minors.
COLORADO ROCKIES: In the same boat as the Mariners, the Rockies should probably focus on rebuilding, but might not be willing to, and instead could reload with veterans in a frantic bid for contention. The Rockies want to move last year's catcher, Wilin Rosario, to first base, leaving a spot open behind the plate. If the Rockies decide to go all-in, expect them to inquire about Wieters.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, after a breakout 2012 season, regressed in 2013 at age 32. The Dodgers could seek a younger, more established catcher, and they've made it clear during recent years that money is not an obstacle. Wieters probably isn't their most likely offseason target, but the Dodgers shouldn't be counted out for any player.