What can the Baltimore Orioles expect from Matt Wieters?


Buck Showalter really like his guys.

But is he asking too much from them?

There has been a lot of talk that the Baltimore Orioles are banking on the return of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado as the “key additions” to the 2015 team that has relatively stayed quiet this offseason. That is a lot to ask of guys who are coming off significant injuries.

Machado is expected back in time for Opening Day, but Wieters likely will not start the season with the team. The difference is that Wieters is another victim of the dreaded surgery in baseball: Tommy John.

WebMD explains that the injury is a result of stress that the throwing motion causes on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) that ultimately can tear the ligament. To repair the torn ligament, surgeons drill tunnels in the ulna and humerus and take an “accessory tendon” from the forearm and reconstruct the ligament.

Sounds simple, right?

It is no surprise that when Dr. Frank Jobe performed the surgery on the legendary pitcher, Tommy John, in September 1974, Dr. Jobe gave John a one in 100 chance to ever pitch again. With advances in modern science, the success rate is about 85 percent and there are some who argue that it makes the elbow stronger.

Once feared as the end of the glory, the procedure is viewed as a savior in baseball. Several current players have continued their careers with better results following the surgery. Oriole fans do not have to look far to see that Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman have excelled in Washington.

Tommy John surgery is necessary as a result of the stress that the throwing motion causes on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) that ultimately can tear the ligament.

When Wieters had successful Tommy John surgery on June 16, the estimated timetable for his return was nine months. Do the math and he should be ready by March. Now there are reports that Wieters might not be ready for Opening Day. Those rumors were basically verified with the acquisition of Ryan Lavarnway.

What makes this operation unique is that Wieters is the rare positional player to require it. According to the people at Baseball Heat Maps, of the 730 surgeries recorded at the time of Wieters injury, only 15 catchers had gone under the knife and only eight accumulated MLB experience.

There is a difference in a pitcher and a positional player, let alone a catcher.

We expect a pitcher to throw around 100 pitches through roughly six innings on every fifth day. We understand that someone throwing a ball at over 90 mph over 100 times is going to put a lot of stress on the elbow.But think about the catcher for a minute. While not with the same force that we see from pitchers, every time that ball hits the mitt, it’s a toss back to the mound. When the pitcher is lifted after those six innings of work, the catcher’s day is not done. He still has three innings of work to do and is doing it again the following day. Catchers are hit by pitches, bats and sometimes players too.

The catcher is also swinging the bat, adding more stress to the elbow. One could argue that pitchers swing the bat too, but this is the American League. There are no easy outs in this league.

So with a small sample size of players to compare to, what can Baltimore expect from Wieters?

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Fortunately for Wieters, he can pick up the phone and call one of the eight catchers to make it to the Big Leagues following the UCL reconstruction. Former Oriole Taylor Teagarden underwent the procedure in 2005, and while never a star, he has enjoyed a formidable career.

There is no denying that the elbow injury was hurting Wieters offensively and defensively. A popular motto for Oriole fans was “Don’t Run Ever” whenever he was behind the plate because of his ability to throw out baserunners. Prior to the injury, Wieters successfully threw out 33 percent of would-be base stealers. In 2014, he was just 1-for-12 with runners on the move, nowhere near the typical production expected from the All-Star.

What made the injury more disheartening is that the start of the 2014 campaign was easily the best of his career. He batted .338 with five homers and 18 RBI in the month of April. So when the injury came to fruition in May, there was hope that for a while he could contribute in some way as a designated hitter.

On May 6, he recorded two hits in a start at DH that boosted his average to .341. It seemed as though they could manage the pain. It must have been too much, however, because he lasted just three more games before being subsequently shut down for the season.

The club has no reason to rush anything. Both the club and Wieters’ agent, Scott Boras, have publicly stated that there is no rush to work on a contract extension. Wieters is in the last year of his arbitration eligibility and scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. The Georgia Tech product is going to get paid regardless of where he signs.Fortunately for the Orioles, they will be given the opportunity to see how his elbow responds firsthand.

Before the team thinks about next offseason, they must realize they are putting a lot of their 2015 hopes on a player with no guarantee to be the same player he was before surgery. With the Orioles currently carrying five catchers on their 40-man roster, they can ease him back into his position as the backstop. It’s likely that Wieters plays more at DH this season than any of his previous years in Baltimore.

Lets just hope Showalter is right to put trust in a reconstructed elbow.