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Signed C-S Matt Wieters to a two-year, $21 million contract. [2/24]
When a Scott Boras client signs with the Nationals, it’s tempting to just write up the story as another instance of the sport’s highest-profile agent leveraging his special relationship with the Washington franchise. After all, Boras has paired stars with the Nationals from Jayson Werth to Stephen Strasburg and everyone in between. But this team-and-player pairing makes sense for reasons beyond just the agent’s name.
To wit, the Nationals lost a breakout talent at the catching position in Wilson Ramos. They were not only under-talented at the position but thin as well, and a team with World Series aspirations can hardly afford to be thin anywhere. And would you believe that there was a highly-regarded veteran backstop willing to travel the short way along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway waiting for a suitor in free agency?
It almost makes too much sense that Wieters—one of the MLB's elite prospects from a decade ago—would join fellow wunderkinder Strasburg and Bryce Harper in the nation’s capital. But Wieters’ “problem” is that he’s almost nothing like the player PECOTA once projected to be the value equivalent to Mike Trout out of the minor-league gates. Expecting Wieters to be a top-five offensive player in baseball while playing exceptional defense behind the plate was PECOTA’s mistake; expecting that projection to only be wrong by inches was mine.
Even after all the evidence started to go the other way and Wieters debuted with competence instead of excellence, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the on-base percentage to start rising near .400. That never happened, as Wieters never quite hit right-handed pitching enough to really explode as a hitter. To date, his career batting line against right-handers is .250/.312/.404, which is just about as below average as his .272/.333/.467 line versus left-handers is above average.
There’s a little hope in the split, as some of his best offensive seasons against right-handers are his abbreviated 2014 and 2015 years, but last year saw his split turn around and he couldn’t handle lefties worth a damn while things against righties weren’t that much better. There’s always hope that things can change and improve, but entering his age-31 season it’s best to imagine that PECOTA’s new projection (a .252/.317/.428 line) is the most likely outcome.
When it comes to the rest of his game, Wieters is just as tough to pin down and just about as close to the median. After a few years in which he gained plaudits for his defensive abilities, the metrics now see him as a roughly average catcher overall. While his throwing and blocking are still quite good—no mean feat after suffering through Tommy John surgery—his pitch framing has gone downhill. While I personally think this may be due to the rising tide of good framers raising the bar for “average” throughout baseball, the fact remains that Wieters doesn’t steal enough strikes to put him in the upper echelon of backstops.
Then there’s the awful baserunning (he always cost the Orioles between 1-5 runs per season) and his recent injury issues, and there are enough red flags to make a team take pause before hiring him on to a long-term deal. After criticizing his offensive abilities, his framing, his baserunning, and his health … what’s left to say about Wieters? How about this: he’s a pretty good starting catcher. Even an average catcher can be hard to find. Wieters may not have been completely healthy over the past few years, but his offensive floor is probably a lot higher than most of the men who don the tools of ignorance. When you can get close to a league-average bat and pair it with decent defense at the two, that makes a pretty valuable asset.
The worries I had when noting he was the 20th-best free agent on the market were more about Wieters being valued as a top-10 backstop in the game and earning a four-year, $50 million deal from some team still in love with his potential. That didn’t happen in Washington. At $21 million over two years—and some of that money backloaded beyond his term with the team—the Nationals are making what I’d consider a smart investment at a position where they could use some certitude. And while the aspects that make up Wieters’ performance—especially his health and bat—may be a little unstable, the total package is fairly reliable.
Say what you want about the Nationals and their inability to get past the first round of the playoffs, but they’re spending like crazy in a desperate attempt to get to the promised land. As a team without a lot of massive holes, the areas where they could truly upgrade include the bullpen, Ryan Zimmerman, and the catcher spot. Bringing on former All-Star Derek Norris was a nice flier, but adding Wieters as the starter raises both the floor and the ceiling for the position.
As a big name, one might expect a huge upgrade from the Norris-Jose Lobaton tandem, but Wieters' acquisition is a more moderate one that also provides depth. This team will probably need every extra win to slip through the top-heavy National League. Replicating the value of the departed Wilson Ramos is a tall order, but Wieters will help close the gap a little bit. The trick is setting your expectations to the facts about Matt Wieters, rather than the Matt Wieters Facts.