As the long offseason finally draws to a close, with pitchers and catchers slowly making their way to Spring Training, many teams are taking a close look at their rosters, attempting to patch up some of the holes they had previously failed to address. After making their big offseason acquisition in the form of Doug Fister, the Nationals have been in ‘tweak’ mode for a while, looking to make small improvements instead of wholesale changes. And one of the biggest small improvements the team can make is in the area of backup catcher. The Nationals come into Spring Training with a starting catcher in Wilson Ramos who, while talented, has yet to play more than 113 games in a season, and who has played in 103 games over the past two years. Behind him, the Nationals lack a backup catcher capable of shouldering the load in case of injury — their two options, Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, who have OPS’d .636 and .649, respectively, in the minor leagues.
So it should come as no surprise that the Nationals are pursuing Rays’ catcher Jose Lobaton, and have been for some time. Lobaton is really a perfect fit for the Nationals’ roster. Last year, in his first full season in the major leagues, he put up a .249/.320/.394 triple-slash (and an 100 OPS+) in 100 games, with solid power (7 home runs and a .145 ISO), solid on-base skills, and above-average defense. As a switch-hitter who hits well from the left side (.736 OPS last year, better than his OPS from the right side), Lobaton can help keep Ramos healthy by giving him added days off, especially against tough righties. And perhaps most importantly, in case Ramos does go down with an injury, Lobaton is more than capable of taking the reins and keeping the catcher’s position from being an offensive black hole.
So clearly, the Nationals would be a better team with Lobaton. But they don’t get him for free:
Karns is nobody’s definition of organizational depth — he is a bona fide prospect, with a legitimate shot at making an impact in the major leagues. Karns is already 26 years old, and got a late start on his pro career thanks to a shoulder injury, but has had an extraordinarily successful minor league career. In 304 career minor league innings, Karns has posted a 2.66 ERA, striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings. He walks a few too many batters (3.8 per nine innings), but as seen in his brief call-up this year, his stuff will play at the major league level:
Karns’ first stint in the MLB was not all that successful — 10 earned runs in 12 innings, although with 11 strikeouts. But his stuff, along with his minor league prowess, has him ranked ninth in the Nationals’ system. That’s a lot to give up for a player that is likely to be nothing more than a backup catcher. But there are numerous mitigating factors that make this a better deal than it appears on the surface. First, the Nationals have a great deal of pitching depth for the 2014 season. Behind their presumptive top five starters, they have players like Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, and Ross Ohlendorf lying in wait. They seem to have little need for Karns this season — more likely than not, he won’t see the major leagues. Second, Karns isn’t likely to be a major part of the Nationals’ future rotation. Come 2016, you are far more likely to see players like Lucas Giolito, AJ Cole and Matt Purke fronting the Nationals’ rotation than Karns. In both the present and the future, there seems to be little room in the Nationals’ plans for Nathan Karns.
And Lobaton isn’t just some rental player — he is under team control for the next four years, this year at the relative bargain of $900,000. Between Lobaton and Ramos (who is under team control for the next three years), the Nationals could have certainty behind the plate for years to come.
Trading Karns shouldn’t be done lightly, and for the Rays, getting a top-10 prospect in a system for a backup catcher would be something of a coup. But for the Nationals, acquiring Lobaton may be worth losing Karns. In conclusion, to smooth over doubts about this deal, here is the biggest highlight of Lobaton’s career: