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Nationals plan to boost Matt Wieters’s production by reducing his workload

Matt Wieters will be on the Nationals’ books for $10.5 million in 2018. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — If the Nationals had their way, Matt Wieters wouldn’t be on their roster in 2018 — at least not at the $10.5 million price tag attached to him — because he was, statistically, the worst everyday catcher in baseball in 2017. But he will be on the roster at $10.5 million because he exercised his player option, which became an inevitability … because he was, statistically, the worst everyday catcher in baseball in 2017.

So the Nationals have to work with what they’ve got on a team that otherwise has few holes. The Nationals believe Wieters, who was universally lauded for his work with the pitching staff, will be better than he was last season, when he batted .225 with 10 home runs and a .632 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while metrics suggested he was also one of the worst defensive catchers in the majors. But they also don’t expect a Ryan Zimmerman-esque bounce-back year for a catcher who turns 32 in May and has a recent history of freak but significant injuries.

Wieters appeared in 123 games, started 113 games at catcher and caught 1,003 2/3 innings in 2017. He posted -0.2 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the lowest among catchers with at least 350 plate appearances. No other catcher posted lower than 0.6 WAR. Nationals catchers combined for -1.1 WAR, by far the worst production in baseball. Padres catchers were next at -0.4.

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To optimize Wieters’s and their catchers’ production, the Nationals plan to play Wieters less next season. Washington wants to reduce his workload, perhaps into the range of 90 to 100 games, and give more responsibility to the backup. As of Wednesday, that would be Pedro Severino.

The 24-year-old struggled at the plate in 2017, batting .242 with a .623 OPS in 59 games for Class AAA Syracuse, but Severino’s strengths are elsewhere — his glove, arm and speed. He’d be an upgrade over Jose Lobaton, the outgoing backup who was one of the least productive players in baseball last season. The Nationals also have Raudy Read on the doorstep. Read, 24, is a weaker defender but possesses significantly more offensive potential than Severino, which makes him likelier to become an everyday catcher in the Nationals’ view.

But that’s down the road. Maybe in 2019. For now, the Nationals have Wieters heading their depth chart again. Maybe that changes with a trade this winter; maybe the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, whom the Nationals covet, will be made available and Washington could land an all-star-level catcher for 2018 and beyond.

Regardless, Wieters will be on the roster for $10.5 million next season, and the Nationals will have to operate in that reality.

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