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Washington Nationals’ 2019 catcher search: What will Nats do behind the plate?

Matt Wieters is likely to leave via free agency, so the Washington Nationals will be back in the market for catching again this winter.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez sang Matt Wieters’ praises after the veteran backstop hit a three-run home run (his 8th of the season) in a 6-0 Nats’ win over New York during the last homestand.

Wieters, 32, suffered a hamstring injury which required surgery that cost him a total of 50 games between May 10th and July 9th, but he returned surprisingly quickly, and has been behind the plate since, bringing some stability to the pitching staff which struggled in his absence with Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom sharing the catching duties.

“For what he came back from with being the catcher just tells me a lot about how he feels about the game and his teammates,” Martinez said.

“He had surgery, he blew his hamstring out, had to repair it, and it was bad enough that he’s got to squat every day, and he came back. They said it was going to be a while. He came back fairly quick. He handles the pitching staff unbelievable. He’s been really, really good, really positive, really a joy to be around, and I’m glad that he’s actually getting a chance to play.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“We talk a lot, he needs days off, he’s been battling a couple of other little injuries, but he’s been great, and like I said, I loved having him around. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, but just being around him I’ve learned a lot just by talking to him about the pitching staff and what he thinks and how he thinks and how our pitchers think, so it’s been a blessing to have him.”

Wieters, who wasn’t in the lineup for the series opener with the Colorado Rockies last night, has a .238/.328/.377 line with eight doubles and eight home runs in 266 plate appearances this season, over which he’s put up a .995 fld% and a 32% CS%, and been worth 0.9 fWAR.

Wieters exercised a player option in the 1-year/$10.5M deal he signed with the Nationals before the 2017 campaign, which paid him another $10.5M in his second season in D.C. after a somewhat disappointing .225/.288/.344, 20 double, 10 HR, -0.4 fWAR run in 2017 in the first year of his career outside of Baltimore.

He’s not likely to return to the nation’s capital in 2019, however, as Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo acknowledged during his weekly visit with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies. Rizzo was asked if he planned to upgrade the No. 1 catcher’s spot over the winter after the Nats got a combined .212/.303/.320 line with 22 doubles and 12 HRs out of the position before Friday night’s series opener in Colorado.

“I think those are decisions that we’re going to have to make,” Rizzo explained. “Wieters is a free agent. We’ve got our two young kids in Severino and Kieboom, who — Kieboom has had a nice year as a backup catcher for us this year, but I agree that a frontline catcher is a guy that we should target and go after, because it’s a huge position defensively, first of all, it’s a guy who controls a game, and I think you saw when Wieters went down, the way the pitchers threw to the catchers was as important as any type of offense you’re getting from the catcher’s position.

“To me the best catchers in the game handle the pitching staff, they’re pseudo-pitching coaches on the field, they’re guys that call a game, prepare for the game, and then offense is kind of the cherry on top of the sundae, so it’s a position of need, it’s a position that we’re going to have to target and go after next year, and I think it’s something that’s going to really help the ballclub if we land one of those guys.”

The answer isn’t likely to come from within the organization either, with Severino struggling when called upon after Wieters’ injury, and Kieboom looking like a solid No. 2, but not likely to be handed the No. 1 job.

Raudy Read is the highest-rated prospect in the system, but as Rizzo explained, he’s coming off an 80-game PED suspension that affected his development.

“The PED suspension really set him back this year,” Rizzo said. “He lost 80 games because of it. We put him in Double-A this year, he started swinging the bat well towards the latter part of the season, but he was still in Spring Training mode in the third month of the season, so it set him back a lot. He’s a real offensive-type of profile as a catcher, his defense is getting better. Bob Boone and those guys are working hard with him in the minor leagues to get his game-calling, his footwork behind the plate, and his blocking much, much better, and we think that he’s a guy for us in the future, but we don’t think the future as an everyday guy is next year, so we think we’re going to have to, again, target a frontline catcher and see if we can go get one.”

Does this mean another winter of rumors of interest in J.T. Realmuto? Will the Nationals look elsewhere this time around?

Which catchers should Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office target via free agency or trade?