Here’s what to know about changes in the Washington Nationals starting infield next season: There will likely be none.
Bouncing around the diamond is a rather simple equation. At first base, Ryan Zimmerman had the best season of his career. Daniel Murphy is entering the final season of his contract at second base. Trea Turner is just starting. Anthony Rendon has a chance at a top-five finish in MVP voting this season. He’s going nowhere.
That leaves catcher.
When Matt Wieters signed late in spring training, his agent, Scott Boras, folded an interesting clause into his contract. The second year of his two-year, $21 million deal was a player option. It made sense from Boras’ side: If Wieters played well, reestablishing his value on the open market, he could decline the option and pursue a long-term deal. If he did not, he would have a job still in his pocket.
He did not.
Wieters had his worst season at the plate. He hit a mere .225 with just 10 home runs and an .344 slugging percentage. He struck out more than twice as much as he walked, despite being part of the third-best offense in the National League.
Wieters, 31, also struggled behind the plate. Advanced defensive metrics, which continue to have the depth of their validity debated, ranked him in the bottom third of catchers in defensive runs saved. He threw out just 19 of 57 base-stealers.
However, the Nationals’ pitching staff lauded him for his pitch-calling, preparation and the size of target behind the plate. For the same reason Wieters is a slow runner, he’s a massive homeplate focal point at 6 foot 5 and 230 pounds. Wieters also changed how the starters pitched. Take Stephen Strasburg. His curveball usage went up almost 10 percent, changeup usage up five percent and his fastball usage down five percent. He had the best year of his career.
Since the return of the switch-hitting Wieters seems all but guaranteed, the pitching staff will at least begin spring training with familiarity.
That leaves just one infielder’s contract that has large implications this offseason. It belongs to Murphy.
He has been a steal in his first two seasons in Washington. He has twice been an All-Star and has compiled 7.4 WAR in two years. Using the rough estimate of one WAR being worth around $9 million, Murphy has played at approximately $66.7 million worth of value in those two seasons. He has been paid $20 million.
Passing through the clubhouse at one point last season, Murphy made a joke about entering the final year of his contract. What to do with him going forward is an intriguing question in the league. The New York Mets thought Murphy’s late-blooming results were more fluke than blueprint. Even the Nationals didn’t want him at first, searching out other second-base options like Brandon Phillips.
Now, Murphy, who will turn 33 next April, has proven to be one of the toughest outs in baseball while playing second base. His defensive ability makes him destined for a shift to first base or designated hitter at some point in his career, but neither of those options are available to the Nationals because of Zimmerman and their residence in the National League.
Washington also has young infielder Wilmer Difo quickly developing. The Dominican showed some punch last season when filling in at shortstop for the injured Trea Turner. Difo is 25 and will be exceptionally inexpensive for the next five years.
Difo will be back as an utility infielder. The rest of the Nationals’ infield bench is in flux. Adam Lind likely put himself in place for a multi-year contract after putting together an .875 OPS during his first season as a full-time bench player. Howie Kendrick will also be in demand.
But, from first to third, Washington knows how it will look on Opening Day, 2018.
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