Matt Wieters a bargain buy for win-now Nationals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Matt Wieters might not be the player he once was. But given the price tag, signing him was a no-brainer for the Washington Nationals.

There’s no doubt that Wieters will be hard-pressed to match the production that Wilson Ramos gave Washington last year. He’s never had a season in which he hit. 300 or posted an OPS of .850, both of which Ramos did in leading the Nats to the 2016 NL East title. That’s not something Wieters should feel bad about. Few catchers in baseball have put up the numbers that Ramos tallied last season.

What Wieters does give Washington is an immediate upgrade over Derek Norris, whom the club acquired via trade in early December and who -- until Wednesday morning -- was penciled as the starting catcher. Yes, the Nats like Norris. Yes, they were the team that originally drafted him as a fourth-rounder in 2007. Yes, they were confident that he could get back to being the guy who was an All-Star in 2014, when he hit .270 with Oakland. But considering how badly Norris struggled last year in San Diego (his .186 average was worst in MLB among players with 450 plate appearances), that might have been wishful thinking.

Although Wieters isn’t without issues of his own -- he’s on the wrong side of 30, grades out poorly in the metric of the moment (pitching framing), and is less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery -- the four-time All-Star still has plenty to offer the Nationals. Since 2009, he’s hit more home runs from the catcher position (117) than anyone not named Carlos Santana or Russell Martin. He’s also a switch-hitter who’s relatively balanced at the plate (.716 OPS vs. righties, .801 vs. lefties). Not bad for a guy who, given the depth of the Nats lineup, will most likely hit in the bottom third of the order. Defensively, Wieters does a good job controlling the running game (33 percent career caught stealing rate), and last year threw out 35 percent of runners (compared to 21 percent for Norris). In other words, there’s plenty for Dusty Baker to like.

“He came in kind of with a bang and he was one of the best catchers around, then he got injured,” the Nats skipper said Wednesday. “It looked like last year when we played him he was an offensive force. It gives us another big bat in the lineup, and to my understanding he calls a good game and handles a pitching staff well.”

Perhaps the most attractive part of the Wieters package, if you’re the Nationals, is that he comes with virtually no long-term commitment. At the beginning of the offseason, the buzz was that the former first-round pick -- a Scott Boras client who last year accepted a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Orioles in hopes of scoring a multi-year deal after the 2016 season -- would be looking for maybe a four- or five-year deal worth $80 million, if not more. Obviously, the Nationals weren’t going that route. Nobody was. Not in a shockingly buyer-ish market where big power bats have been treated like lepers.

As a result, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was able to reel in Wieters on a two-year deal for $21 million that includes a player opt-out after the 2017 season. So really, it’s more like a one-year deal for $10 million (Wieters' salary this season).

For a squad that won 95 games last year and that’s poised to make a run at the first championship in franchise history, it makes all the sense in the world. For a team that made a big splash by trading for outfielder Adam Eaton and that only has two more guaranteed years of Bryce Harper, upgrading at catcher is just one more piece of the puzzle. As an added benefit, landing Wieters could help the Nats address one of their other biggest needs: closer.

With Washington whiffing on the big three free-agent closers (Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon), it seemed as though the club was prepared to look in-house at either Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen. Suddenly the Nationals have a surplus at the catcher position, leading to speculation that they might flip one of their backstops for help at the back end of the bullpen. In related news, the Chicago White Sox, who’ve spent the winter wheeling and dealing and have been dangling closer David Robertson, are rumored to be bullish on Nats prospect Pedro Severino. Maybe something happens there, maybe it doesn’t.

Even if the Nationals stand pat, there’s no denying that the Wieters signing makes them a better team. Maybe not night-and-day better, but given the relatively low cost, it’s a value that was simply too good to pass up.