Can Nats commit to Wieters as their No. 1 catcher in 2018?

As we transition into offseason mode here, we’re reviewing each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Matt Wieters, who struggled in his first season in D.C. but was well-liked by the pitching staff.

PLAYER REVIEW: MATT WIETERS

Age on opening day 2018: 31

How acquired: Signed as free agent, February 2017

MLB service time: 8 years, 129 days

2017 salary: $10.5 million

Contract status: Holds $10.5 million player option for 2018. Free agent in 2019.

2017 stats: 123 G, 465 PA, 422 AB, 43 R, 95 H, 20 2B, 0 3B, 10 HR, 52 RBI, 1 SB, 0 CS, 38 BB, 94 SO, .225 AVG, .288 OBP, .344 SLG, .632 OPS, 1 DRS, -0.2 WAR

Quotable: “He’s been great. He’s a big strike zone. He’s hard to miss. He has a good game plan every time he goes out there.” - Gio Gonzalez on Wieters

2017 analysis: Signed in late February, after clubs had already reported to spring training, Wieters was supposed to be an upgrade for the Nationals, who at that point planned to go with Derek Norris as their starting catcher. Norris wound up getting released, then signed by the Rays, then released after allegations of domestic abuse. Wieters, meanwhile, got off to a rousing start in D.C., hitting .301 with four homers, a .400 on-base percentage and .934 OPS in April.

Matt-Wieters-catchers-gear-sidebar.jpgBut the veteran catcher soon cooled off and never rediscovered that early season form. He never hit better than .247 in another month, never producing an OPS better than .609. He did for a while have a knack for coming up with hits with runners in scoring position, but those number leveled out over time, as well.

When it was all said and done, Wieters wound up with the worst offensive performance of his career. He also struggled behind the plate, ranking 26th out of 35 catchers in pitch framing (a known weak spot of his) and ranking 21st out of 29 with a 25 percent caught stealing rate (worst since he was a rookie in 2009).

Nationals pitchers did applaud Wieters for his game-calling skills. The staff’s ERA when he was behind the plate was 3.61, compared to 4.46 when anyone else was catching.

2018 outlook: The initial signing of Wieters was viewed by many as a one-year fix for the Nationals, given the fact the catcher controls his status for 2018, holding a $10.5 million player option. And conventional wisdom said that Wieters - provided he had a decent season - would likely choose to become a free agent again and try to secure a better contract.

But Wieters’ struggles this season might have depressed his market to the extent that the $10.5 million option will actually be better than any offer he’d get as a free agent. Which suggests he’s more likely than not to return to the Nats in 2018.

What the Nationals will then have to decide is whether they’re willing to stick with Wieters as their No. 1 catcher or whether they believe they need to upgrade at the position. They could accomplish that either by attempting to trade Wieters (a scenario in which they’d probably have to eat some of his salary), by acquiring another catcher that would challenge him for playing time or by deciding it’s time to see if 24-year-old Pedro Severino is ready for a real audition for the job.

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