The Nationals have reportedly reached a two-year deal with catcher Matt Wieters, bringing the longtime Baltimore Oriole 38 miles south to D.C.
Sources: Nats are closing in on a deal for free agent catcher Matt Wieters
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) February 21, 2017
Source: Wieters with #Nationals is two years, $21M, with opt-out after year one. Will get $10M in 2017, $11M if he returns in ’18.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 21, 2017
On its face, the signing appears to make perfect sense for the Nats. Washington has to replace the production of Wilson Ramos, who signed with Tampa, and Wieters has been about a league-average hitter over his career, which gives him value as a catcher. Plus, the Nationals are in serious win-now mode, and Wieters was the best player left on the market.
But in the context of all else the Nats have done this offseason, the move is also a bit bizarre. After letting Ramos walk, Washington re-signed back-up catcher Jose Lobaton and traded for Derek Norris. Given that the Nats also have promising 23-year-old Pedro Severino on the roster, they had plenty of serviceable options at catcher. Now, after insisting all winter that they were content with Norris as their starter, they have gone and added yet another backstop.
The obvious explanation here is that as Wieters remained unsigned, his price tag dropped enough that the Nationals felt they couldn’t say no. Two years, $21 million seems like a bargain for a catcher with All-Star potential. But given Wieters’ persistent health problems and his offensive dip in 2016 (.243/.302/.409), there’s no guarantee he lives up to even that modest contract. There’s also no guarantee he outperforms Norris, who is coming off a down year but was a productive (and healthy) player as recently as 2015. Between poor health and poor performance, Wieters has averaged only 1 WAR per season over the past four years. That he garnered even $21 million over two years has to do with reputation as much as output.
Loading up on mid-career catchers (at the expense of a young one) fits with the aggressive win-now approach that defined the Nationals’ offseason. After trying (and failing) to acquire Andrew McCutchen and Chris Sale at the Winter Meetings, Washington gave up top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in exchange for centerfielder Adam Eaton, a deal that just about everyone viewed as an overpay.
Washington seems to be operating under the premise that Bryce Harper will leave in free agency after the 2018 season and that the franchise will have no hope of winning a title once he’s gone. That will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Nats could have maintained their core for 2017 and 2018 while hoarding prospects for the post-Harper era, then transitioned seamlessly when the time came. Instead, they’ve traded Lopez and Giolito and blocked Severino in hopes of breaking through in 2017 or 2018. Clearly the franchise is tired of losing in the NLDS, as it has in all three of its playoff appearances since moving to D.C., but going all-in right now feels slightly desperate.
The Wieters signing is certainly not as dramatic as the Eaton trade, but it hints at the same instinct to do something.
It also represents an odd allocation of resources. The Nationals struck out on the closer market this offseason, failing to sign Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen or even Tommy-John-survivor Greg Holland, who wound up with a one-year deal in Colorado. It’s hard to figure why Washington would stock up at catcher while pinching pennies in the bullpen.
Signing Matt Wieters lets the Nationals say they improved their short-term odds, in a very winnable division. Problem is, this signing moves the needle only slightly, if at all. All offseason, Washington has seemed impatient, and that rarely pays off.