The remaining free agents at the top of the market are largely comprised of corner bats and relief pitchers — not exactly an unforeseen development heading into the offseason if one were to look at the entire class as a whole. The market looked to be stocked with quality relievers and solid (if unspectacular in some cases) first base/corner outfield/designated hitter candidates. That those types of players remain available in bulk isn’t a huge surprise. A look at the top remaining free agents from MLBTR’s Top 50 list, though, does present a free agent with a markedly different skill set that has yet to find a home despite a fair amount of need at the position around the league: Matt Wieters.
Wieters isn’t coming off a great season, of course. His 17 home runs seem like a fair amount for a catcher, but homers were up league-wide in 2016, and there were eight backstops that hit more long balls than Wieters (plus another five that hit between 14 and 16). Wieters’ .243/.302/.409 batting line checked in about 12 to 13 percent below the league average, per park-adjusted metrics like wRC+ and OPS+, and it was a near-mirror image of the average batting line produced by catchers across the game (.242/.310/.391). He was able to display the durability he was lacking in 2015 when he returned from Tommy John surgery, though, tallying 424 plate appearances and building up to the point where he caught on six consecutive days in September. Wieters did halt 35 percent of would-be stolen bases attempted against him, but he also posted slightly below-average framing marks for the fourth straight season.
[Related: Matt Wieters’ Free Agent Profile]
Overall, Wieters’ age-30 season was a fine performance, even if it wasn’t outstanding. There may be a disconnect between his actual on-field value and his perception among fans — the former uber-prospect label and four All-Star nods inflate his reputation — but teams probably know they can expect a decent performance out of Wieters. He’s a solid everyday option behind the plate even if he’s not the superstar some believed he’d become. He’s also unsigned as New Year’s Eve approaches, despite the fact that other starting catchers such as Jason Castro, Wilson Ramos and Welington Castillo have all signed free-agent deals thus far. With those teams crossed off as potential fits (as well as the Astros, who traded for Brian McCann), Wieters’ market has shrunk a bit, but there are still several clubs that could reasonably be landing spots for the longtime Oriole. Let’s run down a few speculative possibilities…
- Angels: Following their trade of Jett Bandy to the Brewers, the Angels have Martin Maldonado and Carlos Perez atop their depth chart behind the plate. Both have sound defensive reputations, but neither has ever produced in the Majors. Some form of catching addition seems likely for the Angels, though Wieters might be too expensive for their tastes. The Halos have already added Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa, Jesse Chavez, Ben Revere and Maldonado via trade or free agency this winter — good for a total of $25.65MM (using MLBTR’s arbitration projections for Espinosa and Maldonado). For a luxury-tax-averse team, Wieters might prove too costly following all of those additions.
- Rockies: Colorado is clearly in win-now mode, and they’re looking at inexperienced options like Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy behind the plate right now (depth chart). The Rox might like the idea of bringing in a veteran catcher to work with a young rotation, and Wieters has to like the idea of playing at Coors Field, even if it’s on a shorter deal than he might’ve hoped heading into the offseason.
- Diamondbacks: After surprisingly non-tendering Castillo, the Diamondbacks have inked defensive stalwart Jeff Mathis to a two-year deal and claimed another solid defender off waivers in the form of Juan Graterol. It would seem that the new D-backs front office is prioritizing catcher defense, and they may not love Wieters’ framing numbers as a result. Still, for a team with Chris Herrmann and Mathis atop its catching depth chart, Wieters looks at the very least like an on-paper fit.
- Braves: Wieters has been connected to the Braves for years now, given his South Carolina roots and the fact that he starred at Georgia Tech in college. GM John Coppolella didn’t completely rule out a run at Wieters when asked about the possibility recently (Twitter link to MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM), but the Braves do have Tyler Flowers as a solid defensive option on a reasonable contract right now. And, although Wieters is a switch-hitter, he’s always been better from the right side of the plate, so he doesn’t line up with Flowers from a platoon standpoint.
- Nationals: Losing Ramos led the Nats to trade for Derek Norris, though he’s coming off a dreadful season with the Padres and there were some brief rumors of pursuing Wieters and flipping Norris elsewhere. Jose Lobaton is the primary fallback option to Norris, with youngsters Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom waiting in the wings. For a team looking to defend its NL East crown, the pairing of Norris and Lobaton isn’t exactly teeming with certainty. Norris won’t be so well-compensated that he couldn’t be dropped to a backup role, so there’s not exactly a need to move him in the event of a Wieters signing (though Lobaton would need to be moved elsewhere in order to keep both Wieters and Norris).
- White Sox: Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro did the bulk of the catching for the South Siders in 2016, but they’re both out of the organization, leaving Omar Narvaez as the likeliest option behind the plate. The ChiSox are rebuilding, so perhaps there’s simply no interest in spending on a relatively premium free agent, but if there’s a belief in the front office that Wieters’ market has dipped and he can be had on a potential value deal, he makes sense on paper. GM Rick Hahn could always hope to flip him for prospects down the line.
- Mets: New York is an admitted long shot, but Travis d’Arnaud has yet to prove he can stay healthy and productive in the Majors, while Kevin Plawecki has yet to provide any offense at the big league level. There’s been no indication that the Mets have any desire to add a new starting catcher, and they’re reportedly waiting to move a corner outfielder (e.g. Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson) before spending further. Relief help is a far likelier target for the Mets, but there’s certainly a case that Wieters makes the win-now Mets a better team.
There are certainly some other possibilities not listed here — the Phillies could jump in on a short-term deal or the Mariners could look to add a more consistent/stable option than Mike Zunino, for instance — but the bulk of the league does have its catching situation fairly solidified. Let’s close this out with a poll (link to poll for Trade Rumors app users)…