JUPITER, Fla. • A week ago, two years to the day after he agreed to a two-year, $21-million contract with Washington that came tricked-out with all the latest gadgets — a player option and deferred money — Matt Wieters went back to his college, just another alum looking for a job.
A former first-round draft pick and switch-hitter with four All-Star nods and two Gold Glove awards at catcher, Wieters waited and waited through this past offseason before becoming the rarest of arrivals in Cardinals camp. Wieters, not yet 33, agreed to compete for a role that guarantees scarce playing time and uncertain future earnings as Yadier Molina’s backup.
And he did so for one, compelling reason.
The Cardinals were the only team that offered.
“Made it easy on me,” Wieters said shortly after unpacking his bag and before slipping on his No. 32 jersey. “At this point in my career being part of a contender is important to me. I’ll soak in as much as I can from Yadi and definitely lean on him to teach me what he knows about this (pitching) staff. Be ready whenever called upon. Whether it’s once a week or whatever.”
The Cardinals called Monday, agreed to terms Tuesday and Wieters was in camp Thursday with an eye on catching in a game early next week.
Wieters agreed to a minor-league contract that will pay him $1.5 million if he makes the major-league team, and the deal is laced with incentives for games played. He immediately enters a duel with incumbent Francisco Pena for the backup catcher role and a spot on the 40-man roster. Both players, on minor-league deals, can opt-out a week before opening day if they would rather be a free agent than go to Class AAA Memphis. Pena and Wieters said Thursday they would consider a minor-league assignment with the Cardinals only when they must.
The past six seasons have been littered with injuries for Wieters, from a prolonged recovery off Tommy John surgery to an offseason wrist injury. This winter was his first in several that he wasn’t slowed or limited by a physical ailment, and that allowed him to return to weightlifting and workouts he hadn’t done in a decade, he said.
As he waited for offers, Wieters practiced with his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and tried to simulate a spring schedule with catching drills and hitting. He joked a former coach told him to get ready for spring by putting “on spikes and stand in a Wal-Mart for three hours.”
There’s more to this spring than standing. For the first time in five years, Wieters estimated, he’ll be vying for a job, not tightening his cleats assured of one.
“I’ve been able to play through a lot of injuries but to be able to feel like I could really cut it loose, not too often,” Wieters said. “I’m excited because I’ve got nothing holding me back. … In my mind, it’s the first time I’ve competed for a job in five years. I’m excited about it. I’m excited about how that could get some juices flowing.”
For Pena, this was the Cardinals making good on the only promise he received when he re-signed — competition.
“This game is a business,” Pena said. “I will have some competition, and we’ll go from there. It’s part of my career. When you’re a backup, you’re always going to have competition. They’re always going to bring in somebody else who has some experience, and you’re always going to have to compete. Not only this team, that’s every team.”
Pena has “a ton of goodwill in our clubhouse,” general manager Michael Girsch said, and that comes from what he did a year ago.
The Cardinals had prospect Carson Kelly penciled-in as Molina’s backup before Pena overtook him, won the job, and became a steady and little-used catcher — until he wasn’t. When Molina missed a month while recovering from emergency surgery, Pena got the bulk of his 58 starts. That was the most appearances by the Cardinals’ backup in a season since 2008, when Jason LaRue caught in 61 games.
Since Molina became the regular starter in 2005, the nine-time Gold Glove-winner has started 77 percent of the regular-season games the Cardinals have played. He’s appeared at catcher in 79 percent of them. The backup averages 38 games a season since 2005.
That has complicated the Cardinals’ ability to sign, entice, or even develop backup catchers. The Cardinals traded Kelly. The Cardinals lost Eric Fryer to waivers, Brayan Pena to injury, and others to poor performance. Only one veteran catcher brought in to back up for the Cardinals has gone on to do so for another team . That was Gary Bennett, who had 10 games in the majors after leaving the Cardinals. Backup catcher for the Cardinals has not been a growth position or an investment opportunity.
It changes career paths.
“More than anything I want to win,” Wieters said. “Obviously you feel like you have more control when you’re playing the game. My job is to put as much work and effort and preparation in like I am playing. If you don’t have 40 guys who can play on your 40-man (roster) you’re in trouble.”
Wieters will catch as many bullpen sessions as he can in the coming days to get a feel for the pitching staff and to show the Cardinals his fitness behind the plate. He could begin getting at-bats in Grapefruit League games as early as this weekend, and the Cardinals see a tiebreaker for him being his lefthanded swing and possible pinch-hit use. How he receives pitches and how he’s received by pitchers will be the deciding factor for the Cardinals.
Wieters arrives as the most-decorated backup option the Cardinals have had at catcher in — maybe ever. There have been seven catchers to win a Gold Glove Award since 2008. One retired (Joe Mauer), one still is unemployed (Martin Maldonado), and two of the remaining five now share the Cardinals clubhouse.
All because Wieters was available.
“You’ve got to hope,” Wieters said. “I still feel like I bring a lot to a baseball team. You’ve got to hope that eventually that comes around. I was fortunate enough that it was a good organization like the Cardinals to say, ‘Let’s get him into camp.’”