It's January 2016, and catcher Matt Wieters was supposed to be an ex-Oriole by now.
At the end of the 2015 season, Wieters was one of six Orioles eligible for free agency, and he was considered perhaps the least likely to return to Baltimore. Wieters, 29, had been limited to 101 games during the past two seasons combined, as his June 2014 Tommy John surgery on his right elbow kept him off the field for more than one full calendar year.
Wieters was expected to pursue a multi-year contract in free agency, while the O's had capable in-house catcher Caleb Joseph ready to replace him behind the plate in Baltimore. The Orioles had no serious interest in re-signing Wieters, and they extended him a qualifying offer Nov. 6 -- expecting him to decline -- so they would receive a compensatory draft pick when he inevitably signed elsewhere.
However, the reports of Wieters' departure were, as Mark Twain might have said, greatly exaggerated. One week after receiving the qualifying offer, Wieters accepted it, locking him into a one-year, $15.8 million contract with the Orioles for 2016.
"If you'd asked me going into the offseason, I always hoped to be back and didn't know what the decision was going to be," Wieters said. "I'm very grateful that I was able to make a decision seven days after the season and take a little bit of stress off the offseason."
It was a nearly unprecedented decision during the four-year history of the qualifying offer system. From 2012-14, all 34 free agents who were extended a qualifying offer had rejected it. Houston Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus became the first would-be free agent to accept a qualifying offer Nov. 13, 2015. Hours later, Wieters became the second.
In doing so, Wieters relinquished the opportunity to pursue a lucrative contract on the open market, and he essentially pushed back his free-agent eligibility an extra year. But he had no regrets.
"I truly believe in my heart that the best thing for me this year was to take the qualifying offer," Wieters said. "It really just came down to what [I felt] was the best decision for me and my family. … In this game, there's so much uncertainty. There's always a chance for a trade. There's always a chance for something else. [So] what's wrong with being back in Baltimore, where we've been for seven years?"
Wieters' decision to return may have altered the Orioles' offseason plans, as the club was required to allocate nearly $16 million of its 2016 budget to Wieters -- money the team might have otherwise used to try to fill other holes on the roster.
Wieters' teammates, though, were excited to have him back in the fold for another season, especially one in which -- unlike 2014 and 2015 -- he should have a full, healthy year.
"It's great," right-hander Kevin Gausman said. "He's been awesome for all of us. We love throwing to him. I like having a big target back there, and he's as big of a target as you can get in baseball. So we're obviously happy to have him back, and really just knowing that he's going to be starting there Opening Day and there's no question marks about his elbow and those types of things. So I know he's ready to get going."
Center fielder Adam Jones, the only current Oriole who has had a longer tenure with the Birds than Wieters, hopes to see a top-notch season from Wieters in 2016.
"I'm glad to have him back," Jones said. "Coming off his elbow [injury], he's going to have a full year to recover this year, so I think he's going to have a big year. He's going to be a free agent again, so it's up to him to go out and have a big year."
Perhaps no teammate felt more of an impact from Wieters' decision than Joseph, who was in line to take over the No. 1 catcher role if Wieters had left. The two have such a strong relationship that Wieters consulted Joseph before deciding whether to accept the qualifying offer.
"I actually called him before and asked him if it was OK," Wieters said. "I wanted to let him know that me coming back doesn't [mean] that I think he isn't a capable big league catcher every day. And that's why I called him. I was like, ‘I want to let you know that I'm really considering coming back. I want it to be OK with you.' But I also wanted to let him know that if I didn't come back, he's more than capable of catching 130, 140 games in the big leagues."
To Wieters' relief, Joseph told him he was fully on board with Wieters returning to the Orioles.
"It made the decision a lot easier," Wieters said. "It really did. Just because we've grown closer and closer each year, and … to call him and [hear] how welcoming he was to come back, it makes it easier. Because it's the kind of clubhouse we have. We have a clubhouse [where] you want to please the guy next to you. And knowing that he was happy that I was coming back means a lot."
While Wieters has reclaimed his starting job for 2016, what remains to be seen is whether his on-field production will be worth the Orioles' unexpected investment.
In 2015, Wieters didn't make his season debut until June 5, and while he initially swung a hot bat -- going 8-for-23 with four extra-base hits and four RBIs during his first six games -- he ultimately settled back toward his usual offensive numbers. Wieters finished the season with a .267/.319/.422 batting line during 75 games, with a .742 on-base plus slugging percentage that almost exactly matched his career .743 mark.
Wieters -- a two-time Gold Glove winner -- looked rusty behind the plate in 2015 as he tried to regain his arm strength. From 2010-13, Wieters had been one of the best catchers in the league at throwing out attempted base stealers. But in 2015, he threw out 8-of-26 attempted base stealers (31 percent), below the American League average of 32 percent.
Wieters wasn't the mainstay behind the plate he'd been in previous seasons. To ease him back into the fold, the Orioles never started Wieters at catcher for more than two consecutive days. That's something Wieters looks forward to changing in 2016.
"[I'm] excited to be two years removed from surgery and be able to hopefully play," Wieters said. "It was nice to be back last year, but I missed getting out there and catching multiple days in a row."
Unlike last offseason, when he was still in the midst of his Tommy John rehab, Wieters has no limitations on his health this winter. That has allowed him to return to his usual training regimen.
"More than anything, I was excited to go through a normal offseason and be able to get through a normal workout routine," Wieters said. "That's been nice, not to have to go to rehab for three, four days a week. … No matter what you do, you're still going to have to listen to what your body says throughout the course of the year. But I'm excited to see how it's going to feel and how it's going to respond in Year Two."
By foregoing a potential multi-year contract in favor of a one-year, make-good deal, Wieters is banking on his ability to re-establish his value in 2016. The risk could be worth the reward if Wieters has a strong season, sending him back on the free-agent market in a year with a bevy of suitors. On the other hand, an unproductive 2016 could potentially cost him millions.
Ultimately, Wieters is gambling on himself. It's a bet he and the Orioles hope will pay off for everyone involved.