WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Spring training is upon us, which means major leaguers this week will declare they’ve reported to camp in the best shape of their lives after training hard over the winter for the sport they’re handsomely paid to play. Most are justifiably met with eyerolls. Rarely does a player declare he is in worse shape, or even the same shape.
But for Matt Wieters, getting into the best shape possible this offseason was a requirement. If he is going to rebound from his worst year in professional baseball and, at 31, remain an everyday catcher in 2018 and, with free agency looming, beyond, he cannot continue as one of the least productive players in the majors. It’s a matter of survival.
So Wieters slimmed down over the winter with a combination of better eating habits and a more rigorous workout routine. He reported to camp Wednesday at 224 pounds after finishing last season weighing 238. If he’s not in the best shape of his life, he’s at least in his best shape in a few years.
“You can never know if it translates to results or not,” Wieters said. “But I’m just glad I felt better this offseason and feel better this spring than I did last spring.”
The tale of Wieters’s dreadful 2017 season, when he batted .225 with a .632 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and posted a FanGraphs wins-above-replacement rating of negative-0.2, begins with the strange offseason that preceded it. First, he sliced his left wrist when he dropped a water jug in his garage in early November. The accident held him back from his usual workout regimen for most of the winter and was part of the reason he was still a free agent in mid-February. When he signed with Washington, he reported to spring training a week late, clearly out of shape and behind.
Pitchers praised Wieters’s ability to call a game over the course of the season, but he became a gaping hole in an otherwise deep Nationals lineup after April and ended the season taking blame for the Nationals’ fifth-inning meltdown in their season-ending Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series.
The seven-month performance made Wieter’s decision to exercise his $10.5 million player option in November a no-brainer. This year, with free agency again months away, he expects his familiarity with the pitching staff to allow for more time to invest in working on his swing with new hitting coach Kevin Long. So far, the two have focused on his legs. He said his strength is back and his slimmer physique has unleashed better mobility.
“It’s been freeing me up to get a little more range of motion in my swing, or just feels like a workout doesn’t wear as much when you weigh 10 pounds less,” Wieters said. “So to be able to just feel fresher, lighter after I’ve worked out and hit and thrown and everything like that is good.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez have said reducing Wieters’s workload — he played in 123 games last season — should help him sustain better production. To that end, the club signed veteran catcher Miguel Montero to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training to compete with Pedro Severino for the backup role. And yet, the possibility remains that Wieters ends up in the backup slot if the Nationals pull off a trade to upgrade behind the plate. To name one example, the Miami Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, a 26-year-old two-way standout with three years of control remaining at a club-friendly price, has garnered the Nationals’ interest.
“I’ve seen it all because I’ve just kept waiting to see where guys sign and who’s going to go where and it just seems like my name’s on the docket more than anything else,” Wieters said. “But I don’t like to take too much to where that’s my sole motivation.”
Team officials have taken notice of Wieters’s weight loss. On Wednesday morning, as pitchers and catchers filtered in for report day, one said Wieters looked five years younger. The next step is producing like he is.
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