Analysis: Matt Wieters to the Nationals – Scott Boras and the Lerners do it again

“When I met the Lerners their franchise was worth $400 million. Now it’s worth $2 billion.” -Scott Boras

Last week on the Jonah Keri podcast, Scott Boras sat down for a wide-ranging hour-long conversation on his business and the future of baseball. It was a rare illuminating glimpse into one of baseball’s most influential people. 

Among other topics, Boras discussed his philosophy when he’s selling a client to an MLB team. The above quote best demonstrates his strategy. Boras doesn’t sell the player, he sells his vision of the team with his client on the roster. To Boras, a free agent contract isn’t a simple exchange of services for money. Boras doesn’t advertise the free agent, he paints a mosaic for the owner/GM, where his client is the missing piece to something far greater. Boras isn’t selling a player, he’s giving the team something it doesn’t already otherwise have–a pennant, a playoff appearance, a higher franchise value.

Boras’ strategy has been enormously successful over his career. This approach is how Boras convinced Rangers owner Tom Hicks to give Alex Rodriguez $80 million more than the next highest bidder. Three years after that record-shattering $250 million dollar contract, Hicks couldn’t wait to get rid of it, and he eventually paid the Yankees to take it. Despite this, Boras’ worldview compelled him to say on Keri’s podcast last week, “the Rangers made money on the Alex Rodriguez contract.” And he might be right. 

Boras has taken this approach to the Nationals ownership group with great success. The Lerners, as real estate developers, are probably the perfect target. And since 2011, no agent and team have been more closely aligned than Boras and the Nats. Jayson Werth signed perhaps the the most shocking free agency contract since the above-mentioned A-Rod deal. Boras used his above sales pitch, and Rizzo and the Lerners bought it. To Boras, Werth wasn’t just a good outfielder with decent power and above-average defense.* He was a franchise cornerstone player–the kind of player the Nats needed to transition from non-descript quasi-expansion team to flagship National League franchise.  More Boras clients followed–Edwin Jackson in 2012 as the missing piece to an otherwise contending rotation, Rafael Soriano as the missing door closer on a team who couldn’t quite close the door the previous season, and of course Stephen Strasburg as the ace willing to forego free agency for the right price. 

*seriously, this used to be true 

And today, Matt Wieters. 8 years ago, Boras probably imagined Wieters first free agent contract to be a lot bigger than 2 years and $21 million. Wieters was a first round pick and consensus number one prospect in baseball back in 2008-09. His first game in Baltimore received a taste of the fanfare Nats fans would later see with Stephen Strasburg’s and Bryce Harper’s MLB debuts. Wieters was supposed to be a switch-hitting Mike Piazza with elite defense. Orioles fans passed around Chuck Norris-style “Matt Wieters facts.” He was a folk hero before he swung a bat in an MLB game. 

Well, Superman never put on his Matt Wieters pajamas. His first seven seasons on Baseball Reference don’t look like the first half of a Hall of Fame career. Despite that, Wieters actual production has outrun his probably undeserved reputation as a bust. He’s made four All Star teams. He hit more than 20 home runs three consecutive seasons. He even received MVP votes in 2012, winning a gold glove and leading the Orioles to the first of three playoff appearances in five seasons. 

Still, Wieters saw a slow decline as he approached free agency. His last four seasons look a lot like a league average catcher. Serviceable, but not worth forfeiting a first round pick. Wieters signed his qualifying offer last year after and injury-shortened 2015 season. His .243/.302/.409 2016 didn’t set him up for the payday he was hoping for. 

On the Keri podcast, Boras discussed the value of a catcher to a contending team. Since Boras is a salesman, assume he’s always selling. And his message was clear: a pennant winner needs a catcher. The subtext was even more clear: I have a free agent catcher for the team who needs one. 

The Nationals wisely let Wilson Ramos sign with Tampa Bay, who have time to let him fully heal his knee injury. Even if they brought back Ramos, there was no way the Nats could reproduce the production they received at catcher last year. 

Still, before today, it looked like the Nats had settled on the best of their bad options: a reclaimed Derek Norris or perhaps an ascendant Pedro Severino. A slugging catcher is a luxury. It looked like the Nats were prepared to make do. The foremost question arising from the Wieters signing is this one: did the Nats need to do this?

During the podcast, Keri asked Boras a question he couldn’t dodge. If he’s not getting traction from a front office, does he ever go above their heads, straight to ownership? Boras, in as many words, said yes. He goes to the people with the money–a different, perhaps less skeptical audience with the ability to sign the check. 

Think about the above quote. It’s absurd. There are a variety of factors that have driven franchise values into the atmosphere–cable tv, publicly funded stadiums, MLB advanced media. Even if Scott Boras is on that list, he’s way down there. Boras is simply riding a wave, trying to take credit for the tide’s gravitational pull. 

But perception is reality. And Boras successfully sold an alternate reality to the Lerners what their team would look like with Matt Wieters at catcher. 

Thanks to another Boras client, this team will look a lot different in 2019. The above quote is absurd, but it’s not inaccurate. Since meeting Boras, the Lerners have increased the value of their team five fold. I have no doubt Boras called them up told them exactly how much farther Matt Wieters will take it.