For most of the offseason, industry speculation suggested that the Nationals were the most likely landing spot for Matt Wieters. They were losing Wilson Ramos to free agency, which created a hole at the catcher spot, and Wieters was already comfortable with the geographic area, having spent his entire career in Baltimore to that point.
But all winter, the team didn’t seem to show much interest. At the beginning of December, Washington traded for Derek Norris, who had a terrible 2016 but has plenty of signs pointing to a 2017 bounce-back. With Norris and Jose Lobaton in the fold, they had a perfectly capable pair of receivers, both of whom rated as well above average in Statcorner’s catcher framing metrics. Catching wasn’t the strength of the team, but neither was it some glaring weakness like their bench, and if ownership was going to allow for more spending, there seemed to be plenty of other places for the Nationals to upgrade.
But today, the winter of industry speculation proved prescient, as the Nationals have reportedly signed Wieters, giving him $21 million in guaranteed money over two years along with an opt-out after the first year. The lesson, as always; if you’re not sure where a Scott Boras client is going to sign, Washington is always a safe guess.
On the face of it, 2/$21M for Wieters is a perfectly reasonable deal. Back before the offseason began, I guessed he’d sign for 2/$28M, while the crowd’s estimates put him at 3/$36M. But despite the long-rumored connection between the two, it remains a bit of a weird fit, because it’s not entirely clear that Wieters really makes the Nationals much better.
At the plate, Wieters isn’t clearly better than Norris, even with the latter’s miserable 2016 as our most recent data point. ZIPS projects Wieters for a .305 wOBA against Norris’ .296 mark, while Steamer actually has it at .308/.306 in favor of Norris. If you prefer results to projections, Norris has a career 93 wRC+, while Wieters is at 97, but Norris is two years younger. Wieters makes more contact, so he runs a better batting average and appears better by traditional numbers, but the gap between them at the plate is so small as to not really matter.
Behind the plate, again Wieters is better at traditional metrics, with a slightly better career caught stealing rate (33% vs 26%), but that gap isn’t all that important — there’s also plenty of evidence suggesting that stolen base rates have more to do with the pitcher than the catcher — and when it comes to converting called pitches into strikes, Norris has a clear advantage. Statcorner has Norris at +22.5 runs from framing in his career, while Wieters is at -20.9. Prorated to 10,000 pitches, that’s roughly +6.5 per season for Norris and -3.2 for Wieters, so about a 10 run swing between them per year.
Of course, the effects of framing may be getting reduced, especially if Major League Baseball gets its way and raises the strikezone this year. A 10 run gap between them per year doesn’t mean we should assume a 10 run gap between them going forward, and I don’t think there’s enough of a difference here to argue that Norris’ edge at getting umpires to call pitches in his favor overwhelms the fact that Wieters is a switch-hitter with a slightly better offensive skillset, and he does have a better throwing arm than Norris does.
But there’s just not much evidence that Wieters is clearly better than Norris either. They’re both below average catchers, which is why the Padres gave Norris away and Wieters sat around in free agency until the end of February. If there’s an upgrade here, it’s a marginal one at best, especially because the team will now likely have to dump Norris or Lobaton for not much in return, given that they can’t carry all three catchers on their Opening Day roster.
So, after spending a few months not spending money to upgrade their bullpen or their worst-in-the-league group of reserves, the Nationals found $21 million to give to a catcher who isn’t significantly better than the catcher they already had. It’s not that Wieters isn’t worth $10 million in 2017 dollars, but that if the Nationals had this money available to upgrade the roster, there were probably better ways to spend it.
For one, they still haven’t replaced Mark Melancon in the bullpen, and while you’re not getting an ace closer to 2/$21M, plenty of solid relievers have signed for less than that over the last few months. Would you really rather have Wieters displace Norris behind the plate than have signed Brad Ziegler, who got 2/$16M? Or any of the useful left-handed 1B/LF types who could have provided depth behind Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman? Even if that money just became available today, I’m pretty sure $21M could get you Joe Blanton and Angel Pagan with enough money left over to finance Joe Blanton and Angel Pagan bobblehead dolls for everyone who comes to some random game in July.
It’s not like signing Wieters to a cheap-ish contract is some kind of huge problem for the Nationals, and if the strike zone shifts and framing becomes less of a thing, perhaps the Nationals will be happy they made a spring training catcher switch. But in looking at this roster, if I had $21 million left to spend, it looks to me like another reliever and a better fourth outfielder would have been a more efficient way to upgrade this team than to replace one okay catcher with another okay catcher.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.