Rumors are both a blessing and a curse to baseball’s offseason. A blessing because a good rumor can stoke the fires of the hot stove, keeping baseball talk alive during the coldest and longest days of the winter. A curse because a rumor, when unchecked, can take on a life of its own.
Don’t believe me? Then look at the interest the Nationals reportedly have in free agent catcher Matt Wieters, who is ready to take his career beyond Baltimore, which drafted, developed and was home to the four-time All-Star for all eight of his major league seasons.
Who wouldn’t want a switch-hitting catcher who has won two Gold Gloves and possesses significant arm strength to gun down the game’s best basestealers? Well, just about any team could make room for Wieters, who is hitting free agency for the first time at 30. He would have done so as a 29-year-old, but Wieters accepted the Orioles’ qualifying offer of $15.8 million last offseason and returned to Charm City instead of testing the open market a year removed from Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow.
Wieters slashed .243/.302/.409 in 2016 - the batting average was the lowest of his major league career, the on-base percentage the second-lowest and the OPS his third-lowest. He hit 17 homers, drove in 66 runs and played solid defense. And with the Nationals losing longtime catcher Wilson Ramos to free agency - and eventually to the Rays - there was a lot of speculation that Wieters could be headed 35 miles south down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Throw in the fact that Wieters is represented by agent Scott Boras, who seems to have no trouble finagling lucrative long-term deals out of the Nationals, and you had all the components necessary for a believable rumor that Wieters was headed to Washington, D.C.
Only here it is, Dec. 27, and Wieters is still unsigned. The Nationals seem set at catcher after acquiring Derek Norris from the Padres earlier this month, and still have veteran Jose Lobaton and promising prospect Pedro Severino behind the plate. By my math, that’s still one catcher too many.
Norris’ arrival should have stopped any talk that Wieters was D.C.-bound in its tracks, but it only forced the rumor mongerers to add a different angle to their chatter: that the Nats would still sign Wieters as a free agent, then flip Norris to another team and figure out how best to deal with Lobaton and/or Severino. As recently as last week, that juicy prediction again reared its head.
There’s only one problem: It doesn’t really make sense from the Nationals’ perspective.
Wieters’ demands for a big-money payday aren’t terribly out of line; he’s earned the right of free agency through collective bargaining and the Orioles’ decision not to extend the qualifying offer (this time increased to $17.2 million) to him. But for all the positives he brings - his ability to work with pitchers, his bulldog tenacity, his strong right arm, the ability to switch-hit - there is one glaring error in his game.
Wieters rates poorly as a pitch framer, which means he doesn’t have the ability to get borderline ball-strike calls in his pitcher’s favor. While you can debate the methodology used to reach this conclusion, you can’t debate the results reached by the sabermetricians who have crunched the numbers and spawned a cottage industry that has general managers seeking to put not only superior defenders behind the plate but also backstops with the innate ability to steal pitches - getting pitches that are really balls called as strikes. In some calculations, these premier pitch framers can be worth a couple of dozen runs a year. So they are becoming a prized commodity.
Unfortunately, Wieters isn’t one of them. Ramos and Lobaton have graded out well for their framing skills over the past few seasons. This is one of the reasons the Rays were willing to take a chance on Ramos, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, and give him a two-year contract even though he might not play until June or later.
Norris, by contrast, has made significant strides in his pitch framing, enough so that that facet of his game outweighs some other defensive warts. Lobaton carries the reputation of being a stalwart framer and Severino, whose defense has always been ahead of his bat, has gotten much better at this burgeoning art form. And Severino, 23, is the catcher of the future. In fact, the strides Severino has made have been so significant that he could force the Nats to part with Lobaton, 32, if he has a productive spring training. Lobaton is slated to earn $1.575 million in 2017; Severino made the major league minimum of $507,500 last season. The Nationals could decide Severino is ready to stick, release or trade Lobaton and use the difference between their salaries (slightly over $1 million) elsewhere.
So for all the pluses Wieters brings to the table - and his lengthy resume is full of positives and superlatives - he doesn’t possess one critical skill the Nationals like to see in thier catchers. And that’s one major reason the rumors about Wieters don’t seem credible. Sure, you can connect the dots between Wieters and Boras and Nats general manager Mike Rizzo. But given the importance the Nationals place on pitch framing up and down their organizational ladder, it doesn’t seem like Wieters is a good fit.
So where will a catcher who can’t frame effectively end up? My money is on Wieters winding up with the Braves or Rockies, two teams who have young catchers that need mentoring from an experienced hand until they’re ready to take over behind the dish. Unfortunately for Wieters, that means he may have to settle for a two- or three-year deal than the longer contract and bigger salary he was banking on.
* The Nationals continue to have interest in re-signing right-hander Aaron Barrett, who was placed on outright waivers in October.
Barrett was headed to arbitration as a Super Two - meaning an extra year of arbitration eligibility - and even though he was projected to earn only $700,000, the Nationals decided to cut him loose and direct those funds elsewhere. Barrett, 28, had Tommy John surgery in 2015, then fractured his surgically repaired elbow in July while rehabbing from the ligament-replacement surgery. Last offseason, Barrett underwent surgery to remove bone spurs and bone chips from his left ankle.
The Nationals have always like Barrett’s power arm and competitive nature. He’s posted a 6-3 record and 3.47 ERA in 90 career games. But Barrett was unable to sustain the success he enjoyed as a rookie in 2014, when he went 3-0 with a 2.66 ERA in 50 games, and said two Decembers ago at Nats Winterfest that former manager Matt Williams overused him, having him warm up multiple times and sometimes never using him in a game.
Barrett reportedly has interest in returning to the Nationals, but he may need to take a bare-bones salary and prove himself healthy.
* When the Indians officially sign first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal, the Nationals will enjoy a residual effect from the transaction.
Because Encarnacion was given and rejected a qualifying offer by the Blue Jays, the Indians will lose their first-round draft pick in June’s First-Year Player Draft. Cleveland was due to pick 25th, one spot ahead of the Nationals. So the Nationals will move up to the 25th overall selection when the Encarnacion deal becomes official. The first 10 picks in the draft are protected, meaning teams who sign a free agent who has been extended and rejected a qualifying offer cannot lose their first-round pick for signing that player.
Only two players who received and rejected qualifying offers earlier this offseason - Orioles outfielder/designated hitter Mark Trumbo and Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista - are still unsigned. But if one of the teams from the 11th to 24th spots signs either Bautista or Trumbo, the Nationals could again move up in the draft order. As it is, they’ll pick higher in June than they have since the 2014 draft, when they chose right-hander Erick Fedde with the 18th-overall selection.