Nationals catchers Matt Wieters and Jose Lobaton combined for some highly visible lapses in the team’s cringe-inducing Game 5 NLDS loss. That helped to illuminate a problem that was largely masked as the team coasted to the NL East title after addressing the easier-to-spot problem of late-inning bullpen woes.
Make no mistake about it, though: the Nats suffered throughout the season from the poor work of Wieters and Lobaton. By measure of wins above replacement, the pair cost their team something in the range of one to one-and-a-half victories over the course of the season. It doesn’t take much argument to establish that the Nats’ tandem — along with little-used youngsters Pedro Severino and Raudy Read — made up the worst catching unit in all of baseball in 2017.
It’s plenty arguable that the catching position represents the organization’s biggest need this winter. Adam Eaton will be back in the outfield mix, covering for the loss of Jayson Werth in left while Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin, and perhaps eventually Victor Robles handle things up the middle. The four infielders are established beyond any doubt. While some pitching additions will surely be considered, it’s also plausible to imagine the club mostly holding pat; remember, mid-season additions Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson are still under contract.
On the face of things, a general path to a solution behind the plate isn’t too hard to decipher. There’s even a clear opening since Lobaton is going to reach the open market and will surely be allowed to depart after a dreadful year at the plate. But it may not be quite so simple as getting a new and better catcher. Let’s take a closer look at the remaining options, assuming Lobaton rides off into the sunset.
Wieters was signed to be a heavily-used regular after late-in-the-offseason negotiations culminated between the team and agent Scott Boras — the influential agent who seems especially to have the ear of Nats’ ownership. Wieters ultimately bumped Derek Norris out of the picture after receiving a $21MM guarantee over two years. He gained the right to an opt-out opportunity after the first season, suggesting that the sides contemplated the possibility of a quality campaign that might set the stage for greater earnings.
Needless to say, things didn’t go as hoped. The former Orioles stalwart did not present any major health problems and appeared in 123 games, but produced only a .225/.288/.344 batting line with ten home runs. Wieters doesn’t run well. Perhaps there’s reason to think Wieters can at least rebound somewhat as a hitter; his .118 isolated slugging mark and 8.3% HR/FB rate were at levels not seen since he first cracked the majors, though that’s also true of his modest 27.4% hard-hit rate in 2017. Of equal concern, though, is Wieters’s glovework. While he is one of those players that carries an aura of veteran reliability, and perhaps is rightly valued for his handling of the staff, he does not excel behind the dish in the ways that are susceptible of measurement. For instance, Wieters rates as one of the game’s least-effective pitch framers and cut down just a quarter of the runners to attempt steals against him in his first season in D.C.
In sum, the Nationals’ 2018 payroll is all but certain to be saddled with a $10.5MM allocation to a catcher that likely won’t be worthy of regular playing time. That’s not to say that Wieters isn’t worthy of a roster spot, but it’s also anyone’s guess as to how things would go if he is bumped into a reserve role. Though Wieters is by all accounts a pro’s pro, he’s also accustomed to handling the bulk of the action. Complicating matters somewhat, the switch-hitting backstop is better against left-handed pitching, which negates his chief advantage at this stage — namely, the fact that he can face left-handed pitching with the platoon advantage.
Perhaps any such concerns with transitioning Wieters into a lesser role wouldn’t be as severe if Severino had shown more this year. The club no doubt hoped the well-regarded defender would stake a claim to a significant MLB role as soon as 2017. Instead, he was limited by injury this year and scuffled to a .248/.297/.342 batting line in his second attempt at Triple-A. While the 24-year-old could yet push his way into the picture, and remains an important depth piece, it’s hard to imagine that he’d be trusted for what should at least be a heavily-used second catcher’s slot on the 2018 ballclub.
So, what options do the Nats have? Purely based upon recent performance, Wieters simply ought to be relegated to reserve duties with the team adding a quality replacement. Depending upon the team’s payroll allotment, there may or may not be much room to add; the org is already staring at something approaching $160MM as a starting point once arb bumps for Anthony Rendon, Tanner Roark, and Taylor are factored in.
But the Nats arguably should at least take a long, hard look at top free agents Jonathan Lucroy and Welington Castillo. (The latter, who replaced Wieters in Baltimore, is likely to decline his player option and hit the open market.) Neither is likely to be prohibitively expensive, though that also reflects the concerns that each brings to the table. I covered Lucroy’s free-agent case in some depth recently. While Castillo was quite productive at the plate in 2017, and has generally been at least an average hitter for his position ever since cracking the majors, he also is a poorly-rated framer that has bounced around the league in recent years despite his solid offensive profile and generally low cost.
The trade market doesn’t necessarily offer much more promise, unfortunately — serving as yet another reminder of how thin the position remains leaguewide. J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins is perhaps the only quality option that might reasonably be available, though he’ll surely come with a huge sticker price. It’s conceivable that veteran Francisco Cervelli could be had, but the Pirates need him and he has been injured. The Phillies could market Cameron Rupp, though it’s far from clear that he’d be the upgrade the Nationals seek. Likewise, taking a chance on the Reds’ Devin Mesoraco wouldn’t deliver much in the way of certainty.
It’s certainly possible that the Nationals will not be able to land a regular option for what’s deemed a palatable price. But even in that case, adding a pure reserve and hoping for the best from Wieters seems ill-advised. Washington might consider setting up more of an even timeshare between Wieters and another veteran. The left-handed-hitting Alex Avila could be an interesting fit; he showed plenty of bat in the first half of the season and would allow Wieters to spend the bulk of his time facing lefty pitching. Miguel Montero is another southpaw-swinging option, though he didn’t exactly distinguish himself at the plate after an inglorious mid-season departure from the Cubs. Among the other open-market options are right-handed hitters Chris Iannetta, Nick Hundley, and Rene Rivera, each of whom will be entering at least his age-34 season.
Ultimately, for a club without any other truly pressing needs, it’s arguable that a bold pursuit of Realmuto is warranted. Harper and Daniel Murphy are entering their final seasons of control, after all, and it goes without saying that there’s a sense of urgency given the team’s postseason heartbreaks. But that might cost an uncomfortable amount of prospect capital (or accepting a large amount of Miami’s unwanted payroll). How do you see things?