And so it begins. We go position by position, just like last year and the year before. What we assume the plan is and why, potential issues, my opinion, and finally an outside the box suggestion (if I can come up with one)
Presumed Plan : Ramos and Lobaton, right? I don't see anything else happening right now.
Reasoning on Presumed Plan : Catcher is primarily seen as a defensive position and despite being pretty bad at the plate, both Lobaton and Ramos were good defenders behind it last year. They lie somewhere between solid and very good defenders depending on what flawed catcher defense statistic you choose to use. Ramos is better in the typical way; blocking balls, throwing out runners. Lobaton is the better pitch framer.
Along with the defense, all the other incidentals are favorable. The two are still under arbitration and relatively cheap. Ramos should make about 5 million next year, Lobaton under 2. Both made it through 2015 unscathed. Both are on the younger side for catchers with Lobaton turning 31 in a week and Ramos a couple months into being 28.
You still might want to consider a replacement, but the Nats don't have an internal option. They like Pedro Severino's defense but the kid (turned 22 in July) has yet to put up a good offensive season in the minors. That's not a mark against him. Like I said, he's young. But it does mean he's doubtful to contribute in 2016. The Nats preseason favorite, Spencer Kieboom, went Kiebust in High-A hitting .248 / . 344 / .346 after impressive showing in rookie and A-ball last year. Don't like Kieboom's year? It was the 5th best offensive season by a catcher in the Nats organizaion in 2015 (20 catchers). Remove a couple of under 40 PA guys and it's 3rd best. If Severino doesn't start hitting it's a wasteland.
Free agency is a little better but not much. Matt Wieters is considered the prize but he can't stay on the field (100 games played since 2013) and has only flashed offensive skill. Arguably the best reliable offensive catcher available is AJ Pierzynski who will be 39 next year. Geovany Soto is ok in a pinch but at so-so defensively is he worth replacing Ramos for?
Problems with Presumed Plan : Man, they were terrible offensively last year. Ramos wasn't the worst regular catcher in the league but he was down there. His fair power was completely undermined by his inability to take a walk (21 in 504 PA this year), his issues hitting for average (.229), and his terrible slowness (another 16 GIDP this year). As bad as Wilson was Jose was worse, hitting .199 / .279 / .294 last year. These aren't isolated odd years but trends as both guys have been going in the wrong direction now for 2 seasons.
What do the fancy stats say? They say it's mostly deserved. Lobaton might get a few more singles but that's about it. Ramos is swinging and missing more and getting slower. Lobaton has likely aged to the point where he is not finding that modest pop that gave him an average offensive year back in 2013.
So if you stick with these guys you'll have one guy who might hit a homer, and a back-up who might take a walk. In other words you have a hole in your line-up. The only consolation being that about a third of the league has the same sort of hole.
My take : What are you going to do? As noted above the Nats minor leagues is barren when it comes to catcher. A normal team doesn't bring up a Pedro Severino but he was literally the best the Nats had at the time. Free agency is only slightly better. Signing Weiters is a fool's move. He can't stay healthy and he's only really had one impressive offensive season. 80-90 games of average offense is far more likely with him, yet he'll get paid on promise. No one else makes much sense to replace Ramos, either as a one-year signing or a long-term deal. AJ, who was good last year at the plate but bad the year before that and will turn 39 in December? No thank you. Dioner Navarro, with defense so mediocre the Blue Jays spent a fortune on Russell Martin? No thank you again. Geovany Soto, the 9 of clubs of all trades? I suppose, if you deal Ramos for something and need a couple year stop gap.
But really with Ramos developing into an actually good defender behind the plate I don't see how any of that is a better bet than giving Wilson one more go at it. He doesn't have to be good, merely average and he was average just a year ago. Maybe you give him more rest? He was pretty wretched in July and September. If that's your goal then you might look to replace Lobaton. AJ or a Brayan Pena as a solely lefty hitter would be interesting. But AJ will probably get a 1yr starting job somewhere and signing Pena is a tradeoff with terrible defense for a guy that's never actually been a good hitter, just recently better than terrible.
No by default Ramos and Lobaton wins out. Cross your fingers everybody.
Outside the Box Suggestion : This isn't really outside of the box, but let's explore trades. There are probably two good targets. One is John Lucroy, a fine catcher offensively and defensively making peanuts, who might be available because the Brewers should be rebuilding, because a slow start and an injury caused a dip in production this year, and because he's had concussion issues. However, it's still very likely it'll take an arm and a leg to pry Lucroy from the Brewers and the Nats aren't inclined to do that. So that leaves Derek Norris. He's not a particularly adept defensive catcher but has improved over time and despite an off-year last year, he's a much better bet to perform offensively than Ramos at this point. The Padres have a young catcher, in Austin Hedges, who is a fantastic defender and should hit so Norris will likely be available, if not this offseason then soon. So why not force the issue?
Ship the Padres Yunel Escobar (they were terrible at 3B), Wilson Ramos (they'll need a back-up C) and Storen (they were terrible in relief) for Norris and Melvin Upton. Why Melvin Upton? Well, you can't expect the Padres to eat all that salary (like 20 million or so) for nothing? Melvin brings back a hefty 15 mill for this year (and 16 mill for next) but he fills that need for an real live 4th OF that could play everyday if needed. If you can just assume the Braves time was some sort of self-induced fluke he'd be a perfect, albeit expensive, fit. The only other big salary guys are Kimbrel, who makes no sense for the Pads to trade if they are going to try to compete; Kemp, who should be a DH and is owed a ton; and Sheilds, who is older and has a ton of innings on that arm. So you suck it up, take on Melvin for more than he's wroth and take away the ultra cheap Norris (paid ~500K last year going into his first arb year) for the next 3 seasons.
You can actually see the Padres doing a deal like this if they want to sell on Melvin when they have the chance rather than risk a bad year next year and be stuck with 3 albatross contracts for 2017. This arguably would make them better, and if it doesn't this gives them 3 guys who will be FA after next year. The question would be - could they get something young and good for Norris by himself?