Dave Martinez is familiar with Matt Wieters from the time they spent in the AL East, Martinez as the Tampa Bay Rays’ bench coach, and Wieters as the Baltimore Orioles’ backstop. Martinez reached out to the Washington Nationals’ catcher after he was hired by the Nats in November.
“We definitely had a conversation with him and what I do know is that our pitching staff loves to throw to him,” Martinez told reporters at the MLB Winter Meetings earlier this month.
“He's a great communicator, he's a leader, I know he had some injuries that he dealt with last year a little bit, and I'm looking forward to him being healthy and leading our pitching staff. And we have talked a lot about him being a little older, maybe getting some more days off just to keep him healthy throughout the whole year.”
Wieters, 31, signed a 1-year/$10.5 deal with the Nationals late last February, and put up a a .225/.288/.344 line, 20 doubles, and 10 home runs in 123 games and 465 plate appearances in 2017, over which he was worth a career-low -0.2 fWAR.
Wieters exercised a player option for 2018 (at another $10.5) in mid-November, and GM Mike Rizzo said earlier this month that he views the veteran catcher as a candidate for a big campaign in his second season in D.C.
“We think Wieters is going to be a bounce-back candidate this year,” Rizzo said.
“He caught a lot of games for us last year, we’d like to curtail that a little bit.”
“Wieters is a guy that had a down offensive year last year for us,” Rizzo elaborated when the topic came up during an MLB Network Radio interview from the Winter Meetings.
“But he’s got a track record. He caught 120 or so games for us last year. We’d like to curtail that. We’d like to whittle that down and make him more comfortable in that 90+ range and I think he’ll be much more effective, specifically at the end of the season, but it’s a problem because our pitchers want to throw to him. And they like to throw to him. He’s an unbelievable preparation guy. The pitchers trust him, they want him out there, and he got ground down a little bit.
“He had a very, very limited Spring Training last season, because, first of all, we signed him really late into Spring Training, and with that forearm injury he didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. I expect him to be -- he’s a proud guy, he’s going to be much more physically ready for Spring Training.”
Wieters, as he explained during an interview at the Nationals’ WinterFest celebration on Sunday, is hard at work getting ready for the 2018 season already, and he’s hard at work to get in shape for what will be his tenth season in the majors, to the point that Martinez said on Saturday that he looks ten years younger (and warned him to stay away from sharp objects after, as Rizzo mentioned, the catcher suffered a serious laceration to his forearm last winter that delayed his preparation for the 2017 campaign).
“I tried to clean up some eating habits,” Wieters explained, “... and actually got to the workout plan a little bit earlier this year than even I would before some injuries in the past have kind of slowed me down. I feel good. I do feel like some of the cleaning up the diet a little bit has made me feel a lot better. I don’t know about ten years, but maybe a couple years younger.”
His goal with the change in eating habits?
“I think I got to a point in my career where it’s time to continue trying to improve and I thought that the eating plan may be a good way that I can kind of extend the career as well as kind of turn back the clock a little bit,” Wieters said.
“The most exciting thing about this offseason is that I’m actually for the first time since before Tommy John in 2014, kind of going through my idea of what a normal offseason was before that.”
In his mind, Wieters said, the key to a bounce-back campaign is simply finding a groove and staying in it.
“I think a lot of times when you do start struggling,” he said, “trying to change too many things as opposed to just trusting the sort of plan that goes with it and just trusting the preparation and knowing that you’ll turn around.”
Have Rizzo or Martinez shared their thoughts about dialing things back with him to keep him stronger throughout the 2018 campaign, which would mean a significant amount of starts for 24-year-old Pedro Severino, who, as of now, and barring any further additions to the catching corps, appears to be the No. 2 catcher in D.C.
“Not personally,” Wieters said. “I’m kind of trying to go the other way, where I’m trying to get myself in even better shape and even better where I feel like I can catch more.
“I like being behind the plate. It’s tough for me not to go feeling like going into the season that 120-130 isn’t the goal for me, but at the same time whatever is going to be best for the team and best for how I’m feeling — I’m excited that I do feel like we have, with Pedro back there — we have the ability to where if I need a day off I can get it, and we’ll see what that plan looks like going forward, but my goal now is to come in in as good a shape as I can to where I can catch 130 [games] if I need to.”