WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – On Tuesday, the Washington Nationals ended nearly four months of speculation and signed catcher Matt Wieters at a price they were willing to pay. And another move behind the plate could be imminent.
The Nationals now have a crowded depth chart at catcher with Wieters, who joins as the unquestioned starter, joining Derek Norris, Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino. With that surplus, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker strongly implied that the club will try to trade the 28-year-old Norris, who was acquired in December and projected to replace Wilson Ramos as Washington’s starting catcher in 2017.
“I’m glad [that] if this was going to happen, it happened now for [Wieters’s] sake,” Baker said. “And it happened now for Norris’s sake, to see exactly [what’s out there] because there’s always somebody out there that needs a front-line catcher.”
The Nationals acquired Norris from the San Diego Padres for a low-level minor league pitcher and were content with him as their starter. But they ultimately decided that Wieters, a switch-hitting four-time all-star with the Baltimore Orioles, was worth a $10 million investment. Norris was informed of the pending signing Tuesday morning, before it surfaced on social media.
“We signed a guy who obviously struggled to sign with a team, and they saw an opportunity where maybe they got a cheaper price tag than they initially sought out,” Norris said. “He’s an established guy.”
When they acquired Norris, the Nationals said they viewed him as a strong bounce-back candidate after a dismal 2016 in which he had the lowest batting average (.186) and third-lowest on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.583) among the 268 major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances. He was an all-star with the Athletics in 2014, when he batted .270 with a .763 OPS. The Nationals believed he was closer to the 2014 version than the 2016 one at a decent $4.2 million price tag.
But Wieters’s addition makes Norris expendable, and Washington could use him as trade bait, perhaps to address their need at the back end of the bullpen. It would not be the first time Washington has traded Norris; the Nationals sent Norris, their 2007 fourth-round draft pick, to the Athletics in December 2011 as part of the package for Gio Gonzalez.
“As of now, still trying to earn a job,” Norris said. “I’m still going to fight for a starting job. I don’t care if it’s Pudge Rodriguez in the prime of his career or Yadier [Molina] or Matt Wieters. As of now, I’m still competing for a starting job. I’m trying to help a team win, and whatever transpires transpires.”
Then again, the Nationals don’t have to trade Norris because he has two minor league options remaining, as does Pedro Severino. Jose Lobaton doesn’t have any left. They could trade the veteran Lobaton, put Severino in the minors, and keep Norris as the backup. The Nationals, however, are built to win in 2017 and flipping Norris, a proven starter in his prime, to improve another area could yield a quality return without having a $4.2 million player on the bench or in the minors.
“There’s a chance of [him staying], too, and we urged him to work hard,” Baker said. “You don’t know. What if Wieters comes in and gets hurt right away? You never, ever know. That’s a very volatile position. But you don’t want to have him waiting and as an insurance guy either, waiting around for him to get hurt because that’s not right. He’s a stand-up guy and knows that somebody is always watching you out there.”