Backing Up the Nationals’ Backstop

The Nationals must shore up the catching corps behind Wilson Ramos

The Nationals must shore up the catching corps behind Wilson Ramos

We’ve only just entered the new year, but the Washington Nationals have already all but wrapped up their offseason. The team hasn’t been quite as active as in offseasons past, but General Manager Mike Rizzo has made several moves that have the potential to help the team respond after a disappointing 2013. The biggest move, of course, was the trade for starter Doug Fister, the addition of whom gives the Nationals a starting rotation that ranks among the best in the league. But Rizzo’s lower-profile moves, the acquisitions of outfielder Nate McLouth and left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins, make the team far more complete, filling some of the biggest remaining holes. However, Rizzo still has a small but glaring hole to fill — backup catcher.

It is not clear that Rizzo believes this to be a problem. After all, his primary catcher, Wilson Ramos, emerged as one of the better-hitting backstops in the National League over the second half of the season — in fact, his 12 second-half home runs and .454 slugging percentage were both tops among NL catchers. Moreover, despite incurring myriad injuries over the past two years, from a torn ACL to recurring hamstring troubles, Ramos finally appears to be healthy. The organization feels so confident in Ramos’ health and production that Rizzo made this statement to the media:

I don’t think he needs any more regular time off than any other front-line, full-time catcher,” Rizzo said of Ramos. “He can play regularly. I don’t know what the average everyday catcher caught … what, about a 125-128 games? I think he can take on that load. And if that’s the case, we feel good about what we’ve got as our backups.

Of course, this seems like wishful thinking. Ramos hasn’t stayed injury free in two full seasons, and has never caught more than 108 games in his four year big-league career. Over the past two years, Nationals backup catchers have accounted for 259 games behind the plate, and the results haven’t been good. Kurt Suzuki, Jesus Flores, Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon and Carlos Maldonado have combined for a .226 batting average and .335 slugging percentage over 798 at-bats, more than a full season’s worth. But the debacle hasn’t just been limited to offense. Despite his reputation, Kurt Suzuki has ranked among the worst defensive catchers in baseball in terms of pitch-framing — in 2013 alone, Suzuki cost the ballclub 9.1 runs (about the equivalent of one win) with his subpar pitch framing.

If Ramos goes down for an extended period of time, the Nationals will be left with just Solano and Leon, two players with a combined 50 games of MLB experience. And even assuming that Ramos can play the 125-128 games, there is still a need to acquire a catcher for the other 35. At this point in the offseason, the catching market is looking very thin. The biggest piece left on the market is John Buck, a player with starter-caliber power but not much else. The holes in Buck’s game (low BA/OBP, poor defensive skills) make him available as a high-quality backup.

But if the Nationals do not feel comfortable with Buck, they can seek to acquire a catcher via trade. Earlier this offseason, the Pirates traded for veteran backstop Chris Stewart, giving up 22-year old minor league reliever Kyle Haynes.  Stewart’s bat is exposed with extended playing time (as the Yankees saw this year), but his glovework is among the league’s best — in fact, his 22.7 runs saved through pitch framing was second in the major leagues in 2013.  Stewart, and players like him, have skills that aren’t easily quantified, and thus are undervalued.  Brewers’ backup Martin Maldonado, who despite a poor bat (he hit .169 last year) still adds value with his glove (saving 10.4 runs with his pitch framing in just 47 starts behind the plate) might be a good target for the Nats.

To this point, the Nationals have had a solid, if slightly understated, offseason.  But they have to make one more move — a small, but important one — before they can truly call the offseason a success.

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