As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Matt Wieters, who finished strong after a slow start followed by a significant injury.
PLAYER REVIEW: MATT WIETERS
Age on opening day 2019: 32
How acquired: Signed as free agent, February 2017
MLB service time: 9 years, 129 days
2018 salary: $10.5 million
Contract status: Free agent
2018 stats: 76 G, 271 PA, 235 AB, 24 R, 56 H, 8 2B, 0 3B, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 0 SB, 1 CS, 30 BB, 45 SO, .238 AVG, .330 OBP, .374 SLG, .704 OPS, -1 DRS, 0.9 fWAR, 0.6 bWAR
Quotable: “I think the thing that he’s most proud of is being able to catch foul tips. That’s the one thing that he does so well, more than any other catcher in the game. There is no metric for that, and he’s amazing at catching foul tips. Those little foul tips just add to collecting strikeouts. He does a wonderful job behind the plate, and he deserves a lot of credit for this.” - Max Scherzer on Wieters, the night he struck out his 300th batter of the season
2018 analysis: On the heels of a hugely disappointing 2017, Wieters arrived in West Palm Beach this spring leaner and determined to put together a bounceback campaign. New hitting coach Kevin Long raved about his swing during camp, and the veteran catcher opened the season with renewed confidence.
Then, only two games into the new year, Wieters landed on the disabled list with a strained oblique. He came back quickly and was beginning to enjoy some success at the plate, but then as he was rounding first on a potential double May 10 in Arizona, his left leg buckled. Turns out Wieters tore his hamstring, and though the injury wasn’t a season-ender it did knock him out for two months.
Expectations were understandably low when Wieters finally returned in July, and by the end of that month his batting average had dropped below .200, his on-base percentage below .300. But then, after the Nationals elected not to seek a catching upgrade at the trade deadline, their struggling veteran at last began to put it all together and finished strong.
Over his final 36 games, Wieters hit .284/.373/.440. He dealt with some nagging injuries down the stretch but still managed to keep himself in the lineup on a regular basis and continued to work well with the pitching staff through the finish line.
2019 outlook: Wieters’ two-year, $21 million contract is now up, so he’s set to become a free agent at the end of the World Series. Conventional wisdom says the Nationals will move on and acquire another catcher this winter, but is there any chance they could bring him back in 2019?
The top catching free agents are Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos. The former would be appealing to the Nats but will be appealing to several others as well; the latter probably isn’t returning to D.C. because of his track record of injuries and defensive issues. Kurt Suzuki, Martín Maldonado, Jonathan Lucroy and Brian McCann also are free agents, but all are veterans whose production has declined and all would need to be paired with another catcher who could share the workload. We know J.T. Realmuto is a trade target, but we also know Mike Rizzo has refused to meet the Marlins’ asking price for a full year now and probably isn’t about to cave.
So what about the possibility of re-signing Wieters to a lesser deal and then pairing him up with one of the aforementioned free agents, hoping a veteran catching duo could get the job done next season? Wieters did perform much better down the stretch this year, and if he knew he wasn’t being counted on to be behind the plate more than three times a week his body might hold up better to the rigors. Let him catch Scherzer as much as possible, as the two work so well together.
It’s probably not the most likely scenario for the Nationals, who are going to explore a lot of catching options this winter. But what probably sounded like a ridiculous scenario not long ago might actually be within the realm of possibility now.