This is not likely the way Orioles fans expected the dreaded specter of Tommy John surgery to rear its head during 2014, but the loss of Matt Wieters for the season is just as damaging to their hopes of contention as any starting pitcher would have been — perhaps even more so.
Following a split four-game series with division-leading Toronto over the weekend and a loss in the first of three against the last-place Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night, the Orioles sit a half-game back of the Yankees, five back from the Jays and face an increasingly problematic path to the postseason. The Orioles have perhaps the least credible starting rotation of any team still in the hunt — Bud Norris is having the best season of the club’s starters with a 3.73 ERA, only slightly better than the league-average 3.90 ERA for starters — and no longer have the services of the one man who knew how to best handle even that modest staff.
They’ll also be losing a hitter who appeared to be in the middle of a breakout season at the plate. Before his injury, Wieters had put together 112 PA of .839 OPS (131 OPS+) hitting, making him one of the better offensive catchers in baseball in addition to his already-outstanding work behind the plate. The Orioles can still hit without Wieters — that’s how the team is built, after all — but given how hard the bats normally have to work to make up for the arms, losing the one player who had a direct impact on both units hurts Baltimore twice over.
We’re at a time when advanced statheads are finally on the same page as traditionalists with regard to the supreme value of a good catcher — the added attention to pitch-framing and highlighting players like Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy is a fairly recent development in the blog circles — and a catcher with Wieters’ established bonafides behind the plate, hitting the way he was hitting to start the year, is usually a catcher who finds himself in the MVP discussion at season’s end. Now, Baltimore will have to rely on journeyman Nick Hundley, acquired from San Diego when the bad news about Wieters’ elbow broke, to try and keep its head above water for the rest of the season — something made all the more difficult given that not only are all the Oriole pitchers new teammates for Hundley to learn on the fly, but he and similarly new backup Caleb Joseph are off to horrible starts at the plate since their arrivals in Baltimore: .331 and .409 OPS respectively, though in fewer than 100 combined plate appearances.
Losing Wieters changes little about Baltimore’s end game: Success in 2014 still rests on lights going on in the heads of Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman, and some combination of Wei-Yin Chen, Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez at least giving the team consistency on the backend of the rotation and the hope Dylan Bundy, who recently returned to minor league action for Baltimore following the completion of his own rehab from Tommy John surgery, is ready to join the big-league rotation for a late-season push for either the division or the wild card. There are scenarios where the Orioles can acquire an arm on the market, but the only one that offers a substantial upgrade — Kansas City’s James Shields — is on a team in its own fight for first place in another muddled division race, and even if he is available, he will have a price tag on him in terms of talent going back to Kansas City that Baltimore will likely be unwilling — and possibly even unable — to pay.
To improve their position in the hunt, the Orioles need the pitchers they have to pitch better, and ultimately the responsibility for that lies with the pitchers themselves and then with their coaches. That was a tall enough order for Baltimore’s staff when it had an everyday catcher behind the plate; now that Wieters is gone, it might just be impossible.