The catcher has a big name, but a shaky recent track record.
The Oakland A’s have two MLB catchers on their roster for the upcoming 2019 season, but the position remains a prime candidate for an upgrade if the right deal presents itself. On that note, a new rumor has emerged: Oakland is “among [the] teams considering Matt Wieters,” reports insider Jon Heyman.
Let’s begin with a full reminder of the A’s current situation. They’ve got a platoon of lefty Chris Herrman and righty Josh Phegley, and impact top prospect Sean Murphy is in Triple-A and could debut sometime midseason. You could make an argument for standing pat with the adequate status quo and waiting for Murphy to arrive, or for pursuing a short-term upgrade while the team has 2019 contention in its sights.
GM David Forst and manager Bob Melvin said last weekend that they were “comfortable” with the current setup behind the plate (via Ben Ross, NBCS), but Billy Beane also mentioned that they haven’t completely stopped looking for catchers (via Susan Slusser, S.F. Chronicle). And yes, both of those things can be true — the team can be interested in a further upgrade without needing to find one.
And that brings us to Wieters. He’s a big name coming off some eight-figure salaries, but he’ll turn 33 this summer and hasn’t been an above-average hitter for a full season since 2012. The first step here is separating what he was from what he is.
A decade ago, Wieters was a top-five draft pick and then a consensus No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. While he never became a superstar, his early career still didn’t disappoint, and for two straight years (2011-12) he won a Gold Glove while swatting 20+ homers. However, instead of building on that initial success, injury set in at age 28 and he was never the same again — specifically, he had Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm in 2014, which cost him nearly two years of his prime.
Upon his return to full-season action in 2016, Wieters actually made another All-Star team, but with all due respect it was a weak year for catchers (along with Stephen Vogt and Sal Perez, all three AL catchers finished the year with below-average batting lines). His numbers from the last three seasons paint a picture of the hitter he is now (in exactly 1,200 plate appearances):
Wieters, 2016-18: .235/.303/.376, 79 wRC+, 35 HR, 8.3% BB, 18.7% Ks
That’s bad, even for a catcher (league average last year was an 84 wRC+). It helps that he’s a switch-hitter, which is always a nice benefit, but in this case it just means he’s bad at hitting from both sides of the plate. His 2018 numbers include an uptick in OBP due to a spike in walk rate, but it’s also the smallest sample of the three seasons because he missed two months to a hamstring strain. His career history gives no reason to assume the higher walk rate will continue this summer, so the long-term batting line above is what should be expected.
Of course, the A’s current catchers don’t hit much either. Herrmann has shown some flashes in the last couple years but still stands at 68 wRC+ for his career, and Phegley is at 71 wRC+ overall and has been even worse than that the past couple seasons. Even Jonathan Lucroy last year put up a paltry mark of 70. Wieters might still be a slight upgrade at the plate, though not enough to turn a team weakness into anything resembling a strength.
That brings us to defense. I’m not going to pretend like I know how to analyze this just from the publicly available numbers, but let’s do the best with what we’ve got.
Both of Wieters’ Gold Gloves came in a previous lifetime, as a mid-20s athlete before his major surgery, so they are irrelevant to this discussion. He can still throw out baserunners at a good clip, even after his TJS (31.3% since then), but Herrmann (32% career) and Phegley (33% career) are at least as good as he is in that department. Baseball Prospectus has their catcher-adjusted FRAA metric, and here’s what it’s had to say about Wieters the last few years:
2016: 27th out of 104 (+4.0 runs)
2017: 108th out of 111 (-11.0 runs)
2018: 90th out of 117 (-2.3 runs)
Make this your daily reminder that defensive metrics require more than one season of data because they can jump around a lot. For comparison, Herrmann and Phegley both rated poorly in ‘16, then Phegley was good and Herrmann bad in ‘17, and then Herrmann was alright and Phegley was tied with Bad Wieters in ‘18. That said, though, there are several names who stay at the top of the charts year after year, so while volatility in this metric is understandable it’s not exactly an endorsement.
The final consideration is experience. Wieters has been around for a while and seen a lot, and he’s been to the playoffs a few times even though he was abysmal there each time. He’s spent the last two seasons catching some elite pitchers in Washington, too. There’s no way to know whether he’d have a similar veteran effect as Lucroy reportedly did last summer, but it wouldn’t be out of the question.
Add it all up, and what do we have? A formerly elite talent who has slowed down significantly due to age and injury, who might hit better than the incumbents but only slightly, and who doesn’t appear to be notably better defensively than what Oakland already has, but is a candidate to provide some valuable veteran presence.
The A’s need depth so I wouldn’t immediately say no to this idea, but I also wouldn’t pay much and it would absolutely have to be a one-year deal. Back in December, Slusser mentioned Wieters as a possibility and said he might settle for one year if it was an “aggressive” offer, and that was before Lucroy took a pay cut and Yasmani Grandal dropped down from a four-year demand to a one-year pact. I can’t imagine how or why Wieters would be able to find more than the 1yr/$5.75m that Robinson Chirinos got, and I wouldn’t go higher than the 1yr/$3.4m that Lucroy fetched.
But for Lucroy money? To get an experienced switch-hitter who is probably a slight upgrade and also might increase the usable depth on a contending team (if, say, Phegley could clear waivers and stay in Triple-A)? I’m listening, but I could go either way. I’d probably rather spend the money on another Marco Estrada-caliber starter, or a lefty reliever, but this would at least be one acceptable venture to put a few bucks toward.