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Should the Nationals sign Matt Wieters? (January edition)

Baltimore’s Matt Wieters, right, celebrates his two-run home run with Steve Pearce during the Orioles’ Sept. 24 win in Washington. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)

Matt Wieters’s name has hovered over the Nationals’ offseason from start to finish, buzzing like a fly they never seem to swat away for good.

The Nationals have always been “interested” in Wieters, in the way any team that just lost an all-star catcher would be “interested” in a four-time all-star catcher with three 20-home run seasons to his name. They are also in contact with Wieters’s representatives, helped by the fact that Wieters, like more than a third of the Nationals’ active roster, is represented by Scott Boras.

Boras is in regular contact with the Nationals about one thing or another, most recently arbitration salaries for Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. Therein lies the origin of that constant buzz about Wieters and the Nationals: Wieters fits their needs, and Washington is in constant contact with his representative. One cannot help but connect the two.

Yet all of that circumstantial evidence raises this question: If Wieters is such a good fit and the Nationals are in such contact, why haven’t they signed him?

Could the Nationals’ spring training project be affecting offseason spending?

Jim Bowden and Ken Rosenthal suggested in separate reports this week that the front office might be waiting for ownership’s go-ahead to spend freely on free agents this offseason. Multiple people within the industry made a similar interpretation of the Nationals’ relatively quiet offseason — that ownership has not given the okay for the front office to spend, let alone splurge. The fact that the Nationals’ only big league free agent signing to date has been bringing back reserve Chris Heisey for $1.4 million supports that perception.

The Nationals did make major offers to both Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen this offseason, indicating the freedom to spend when the time is right. But the sense among industry insiders outside of the organization is that those offers were exceptions to a Nationals mantra of spending enough to contend, rather than splurging for a title.

Then again, how different would the conversation be if Stephen Strasburg had hit free agency and the Nationals had secured him long-term with a seven-year deal worth $175 million this winter, instead of last May? Would the conversation still revolve around the central question of their willingness to spend or not spend? With a payroll of about $150 million, the Nationals have not exactly been stingy.

“The Lerner family’s never curtailed us from doing a deal that improves the ballclub,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings. “And I think that’s going to continue.”

Bryce Harper, who might someday clarify the outer boundaries of the Nationals’ pocketbooks, advocated for his club to spend more in 140 characters earlier this week. When Bowden, the club’s former general manager, suggested that Nationals’ ownership might be wary of spending on free agents like Wieters and Holland this offseason because of investments in their spring training facility — a notion the club officially denied Wednesday — Harper tweeted “Matt Wieters/Greg Holland > Team Store!” But Wieters might not be the best barometer of the Nationals’ willingness to pay up now to climb to the next level in October.

During the Nationals’ recent run of playoff contention, their payroll has hovered near the upper third in the National League. But they have not been free spenders, either — with a few, notable exceptions. Their most famous free agent splurges include Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer. (Scherzer signed the biggest deal in franchise history two years ago this week.)

Werth and Scherzer, like Harper, Strasburg, Wieters, Holland and others, are Boras clients. Boras has a unique working relationship with Nationals Managing Principal Owner Ted Lerner, one that yielded that surprise deal with Scherzer, an extension for Strasburg, an unexpected closer in Rafael Soriano, and other key pieces.

All of which brings us back to Wieters. Are the Nationals actually not that interested? Or do they want to sign him but fear the price, in which case some Boras coaxing might lead to a deal after all? Two points to remember: It is in the Nationals’ best interest to say they are not that interested, thereby decreasing demand for Wieters, and limiting his market. And it is in Boras’s interest to suggest they are interested by any means necessary, as including the Nationals in any conversation increases the price for other teams bidding for Wieters’s services. It is in no one’s best business interest to be completely forthcoming.

When might we see a Curly W in Cooperstown?

That said, the Nationals have never been particularly high on Wieters internally, according to a person familiar with their thinking, and harbor concerns about his defense and his health. It’s also worth remembering that when Wilson Ramos departed, the Nationals were suddenly short an all-star catcher with 20-home-run power. Only one such player, Wieters, was readily available this offseason. The Nationals have not, to this point, made that player a priority. Instead, they made big offers to closers and traded for a cheaper, everyday-ready option in Derek Norris.

Wieters certainly would improve the Nationals’ lineup immediately and would be an offensive upgrade over Norris. Rizzo has done his best to build a more contact-conscious lineup, and Norris struck out more frequently than all but two National League hitters with at least 400 plate appearances last year. Wieters is a career .256 hitter and comes with the added bonus of being a switch-hitter. A large portion of the Nationals’ right-handed power left with Wilson Ramos, and while Harper and Daniel Murphy stand up to left-handed pitching well, Wieters would certainly make the lineup deeper, more powerful and more flexible than it is without him.

But Wieters would come at a cost. Initially, before sluggers such as Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo got far less than expected, Wieters seemed likely to pursue a deal like what Brian McCann or Russell Martin got when they hit free agency — somewhere around five years and more than $80 million. Now, though Wieters is not a direct comparison to Encarnacion or Trumbo, he seems likely to get less. Still, catchers break down, and Wieters is 30. A longer-term deal like McCann’s or Martin’s — or even one slightly less substantial — would carry him into his mid-30s. Is that the kind of player the Nationals should tie up long-term?

Whatever the answer to that question, because of the Nationals’ needs and Boras’s ties, Wieters’s name will continue to buzz around the Nationals until he lands somewhere. Perhaps they will catch him and he will become the biggest splash of an otherwise quiet offseason. Perhaps they will swat him away, once and for all, choosing instead to direct funds to their bullpen, which was a bigger priority all along.

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