BY TODD DYBAS | FEB. 25, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Hope and math will go another round this spring at the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Florida. Mainly, they will be anchored in a tussle focused on starting catcher Matt Wieters.

He played like a tiring man trekking down a mountain last season, just hoping his legs would carry him to the end. After signing with the Nationals late in spring training — in yet another gift exchange with uber-agent Scott Boras — Wieters was moved into the starting spot. His offseason work was limited. His spring training preparation was truncated. And, his position was the most grueling.

That mix led to a dismal season at the plate. Wieters’ OPS-plus was 63, the worst of his career by a significant margin, trouncing his previous low of 89 in 2016. His decline since 2015 has been rapid and pronounced. Wieters’ OPS-plus that season was 101. It has dipped each season since.

“I look at everything as the season we got to where we wanted to get to and we played on a great team that was a winning team,” Wieters said. “It just didn’t go the way we wanted to in the playoffs.”

The Nationals will argue part of his decline can be attributed to overuse. Wieters caught 123 games last season. They would like that number to drop by 20 or so this season. They just have to figure out the path to get there.

Gone is Jose Lobaton. His humor and role as helmet-taker-off guy following a home run will be missed. But, whoever replaces him, will have a clear chance to play more often and provide better work. Like Wieters, he had his worst season last year.

The options are buoyant Pedro Severino or — surprise — Miguel Montero.

Montero’s signing at the start of February showed what his former bench coach, Davey Martinez, thought of him. Martinez, who prides himself on personal conversation, recounted a story in December about Montero to The Sports Capitol. When he saw Montero quiet, he knew something was off.

He used it as an example of how he handles players that are emotional. If he sees them down, he knows something is wrong. Martinez said that he doesn’t want players to differ from who they are, whether emotional or reticent. Montero’s emotions led to him being traded out of Chicago after he publicly criticized Cubs starter Jake Arrieta.

Montero could be a fit for the Nationals. Wieters’ key weakness is Montero’s strength. From the left side, Wieters hit .221 with a .619 OPS last season. Montero, a left-handed hitting two-time all-star, has a career .781 OPS against-right handed pitching. That gives Martinez numerous chances to sit Wieters in favor of Montero, should he become the backup. To do so, Montero will have to hold off Pedro Severino.

At this point last season, Severino seemed to have a chance at the backup spot. Lobaton was back, but at a low cost, and Severino had been part of the postseason roster because of Wilson Ramos’ late-season knee injury. Instead, Severino was sent to Triple-A Syracuse where he joined almost everyone on the roster in having a poor season. He hit .242 — almost 30 points lower than the season before — and never pushed his way into a situation that was desperate for help. The caveat is that he was just 23 at the time.

The Nationals believe a reduction in weight and usage will help Wieters deliver better results. His Baltimore days of 20-plus home runs and an OPS-plus above 100 are gone. What they are desperate to avoid is having their starting catcher be 21st in OPS out of the 22 catchers who caught more than 100 games last season.

“Every year at the end of the year no matter what happens, I go in seeing what I can improve, I can do better on,” Wieters said. “I thought eating habits and getting back to a weight I can play at was something that was a very attainable goal and something I felt like would help me this year and I was excited to see how that goes.”

Wieters has already made mechanical changes with new hitting coach Kevin Long. Their philosophies were in sync — for the most part — since Wieters is a speed-challenged hitter who already wanted to avoid ground balls. Long, and prized pupil Daniel Murphy, is maniacal about getting the ball in the air. Wieters was already into that.

The early change has come in basis for Wieters’ swing. Wieters, who will turn 32 in May, relied on his hands at the plate. He “crossed-over” when he swung, to use his term. Long has pushed him to use his legs more. His early spring workouts are based in that. As are his swing load and drive. The effervescent Long said the changes had Wieters “feeling sexy” about where his swing was already. Wieters is a more reserved sole. He supplied a more placid explanation of what is happening.

“We’ve traced everything back to the legs and being able to stay inline, being able to drive with the backside,” Wieters said. “Throughout my career, I’ve been a hitter who crossed over and uses his hands to hit. It’s been a way I felt comfortable. But, I think I’m at a point in my career where I feel it is a good time to really try and break some of the habits I’ve kind of created for myself and see what that adjustment turns into.

“Just being able to get into my legs more, some of the swing mechanical faults I had before have kind of corrected themselves. It’s a lot of work. It can be a little bit taxing on the lower body. But, the good thing is I know the staff here, so I don’t have to put as much of my physical energy into catching the pitchers. I can do a lot more verbally. Especially early in camp, I’ve tried to put that time into the hitting side, which I’ve really enjoyed.”

He needed it. The Nationals need it. The opening upside is that Wieters, and whomever backs him up, have only one direction to go.

Photo by Todd Dybas for The Sports Capitol