WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Nationals were not all that interested in Matt Wieters when the offseason began, general manager Mike Rizzo said, but when the four-time All-Star catcher’s price dropped dramatically in recent weeks they renewed contract talks and were able to complete the deal.
“We touched base early in the winter, like we do with a lot of free agents,” Rizzo said today, a few hours after Wieters’ one-year, $10.5 million contract was officially announced. “We had limited interest at the time, at that level. And it kind of went dormant for several weeks, until we kind of circled back and saw what their interest level is, and what we’re looking at with years and numbers and that kind of thing. And when we did that, we had some mutual interest.”
Wieters, who made $15.8 million last year after accepting the Orioles’ qualifying offer, was seeking a long-term deal for substantially more money. Thus the Nationals’ tepid interest in November and December.
The Nats even went so far as to acquire Derek Norris from the Padres in early December, seemingly addressing their catching need for 2017. Other teams, like the Orioles, acquired starting catchers, as well, leaving Wieters on the outside looking in.
“Early in the offseason, teams go to try to fill their wish list on what their roster needs are,” Rizzo said. “And if players aren’t going out there and jumping out early, players fill what they’re trying to do. And I think he got caught up in that situation. There were teams that he fit for, but throughout the process, those teams filled up, and there’s a limited amount of teams that he could go with.”
Then why did the Nationals reverse course and sign the 30-year-old one week after pitchers and catchers had reported for spring training?
“He’s a good player,” Rizzo said. “Beyond the switch-hit, the 20 home runs, the 70 RBIs, the caught-stealing rate and the way he throws, you have the other things. Like he’s a great student of the game. He calls a great game. He’s a great handler of the pitching staff. And a great clubhouse guy, leader in the clubhouse. And a guy that I know (Orioles manager Buck Showalter) leaned on heavily as a leader in the clubhouse and on the field. He fills a lot of things for us. He makes our lineup longer, deeper, more dangerous, and he’s a guy that’s got a great resume and a great track record.”
Wieters arrives with a reputation as a poor pitch framer. The Nationals acknowledge this, but point out his other superior defensive skills.
“I think pitch framing is one of the things we look at,” Rizzo said. “I saw a pitch framer in Matt that improved in 2016. I think it’s one of the skills that can be improved. Pitch framing also has a lot to do with the pitching staff that you’re catching. But it’s one component of it. It’s just one of the total picture. You’ve got a guy in Matt that throws out an above-average number of base stealers; he was 35 percent last year, 33 percent for his career. You’ve got a guy that led the league in least amount of passed balls. Only one passed ball all last year. We had 17.”
Rizzo made it a point to talk to Norris earlier this week when word the pending Wieters deal began to circulate. For now, the 28-year-old remains in camp, a member of the Nationals. He’ll be starting behind the plate in Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Mets.
The consensus opinion, however, remains that Norris will find himself elsewhere by the time opening day arrives.
“We had a good, frank conversation,” Rizzo said. “It’s a difficult conversation to have, but it’s part of the business, and Derek knows that. We have a good, long relationship with him, so that helped. And I told him that we would keep him informed and communicate with him what’s going on throughout the process. And he took it extremely professionally and was really great about it.”
As for the glut of catching, the Nationals now have six of them on their 40-man roster.
“We’ve got a lot of depth, and that’s a good thing to have,” Rizzo said. “Catching’s difficult to find, and quality catchers are extremely valuable in an organization. We think we’ve got a good surplus and depth at that position.”
More from Rizzo’s afternoon session with reporters:
On whether the Nats remain in the market for a closer, or whether that have to wait until later in the spring: “Nothing’s changed. We like the group of guys that we have in camp. And we’re looking forward to having one of them step up and take that late-inning job.”
On the state of manager Dusty Baker’s contract, which expires at season’s end: “We’re not going to talk about Dusty Baker’s extension. It’s not going to be a distraction. Dusty Baker’s got a reputation and an aura that precedes any length of contracts. He’s our manager. He’s a great manager, one of the best in the game. And with his energy and the way he’s feeling, he’s capable of managing well beyond this season.”
On if he’s confident Max Scherzer, still recovering from a stress fracture in his right ring finger, will be ready for opening day: “Yes.”