Nationals Baseball: Offseason Position Discussion : Catcher

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Offseason Position Discussion : Catcher

Presumed Plan : Can I just say "See last year"? The Nats will pencil Wilson Ramos in, make that "lightly pencil Wilson Ramos in", as the full-time starter. Jose Lobaton will be the back-up .

Reasoning on Presumed Plan : Wilson Ramos in 2011-2013 put up good offensive numbers when in the lineup. They may not be that impressive in comparison to the league as a whole, but in comparison to other catchers they put Wilson in the #5-#10 range. It's that talent, particularly the 20+  home run power, that the Nats want to keep in the line-up. Wilson is still on the right side of 30 (will turn 28 next August), and is cheap and won't be a free agent for 2 more seasons. Wilson's defense is debated but it's certainly not terrible. He's decent behind the dish, and has got a good enough arm to throw guys out. His biggest issue is the hot stat for 2014 "pitch framing" but even though he's below average he's not close to the worst in the league.

Lobaton makes a good back-up for Ramos. He's slightly better defensively with better pitch framing skills being his biggest draw. He bats both, but is better from the left side.  He's played 235 games in the last 3 years, so he's able to play a lot of games and it not be an issue for him. He's cheap, not being a free agent until after 2017, and he'll be 30 next season which isn't an age you'd expect a break-down of skills, even for a demanding position like catcher.

As for any other internal options. Jhonatan "Don't call me Johnathon" Solano finally hit a bit in AAA but showed nothing in the majors and at 29 next season is too old to be any sort of prospect. Sandy Leon is still kind of young, but hasn't hit in the minors yet (relying on patience to get the OPS up) and is more of a defensive presence. The Nats have an intriguing catcher prospect or two (kieBOOM!) but they are in the lower minors and not ready to make an impact, even as a back-up.

Problems with Presumed Plan : Going with Wilson Ramos is iffy. The guy eeked out a half-season last year and that was the most he had played since 2011. You can't expect more than 100 games from the guy and you have to accept the real possibility the guy misses 2/3rds of the season. These injuries have a ripple effect on the line-up where Lobaton, a lesser bat, is forced into every day service and a complete black hole of a hitter like Solano or Leon kills the 8th spot in the order every 4 or 5 days.

Of course that's assuming Ramos' hitting holds up. His offense took a bit nosedive this year as his power dropped down to the lowest levels of his career and he's stopped taking any sort of walk. Scale up the homers to 140 games and it's 17-18 where he hit 16 in just 78 games in 2012. Eventually injuries do take their tole and at a spot like catcher those nicks and dings can be magnified. If the power goes the Nats are left with a .270 singles hitter. A SLOW .270 singles hitter which means they can expect a lot of double playes (his 17 this year were good enough for 13th in the league despite playing only 88 games)

As for Lobaton it seems likely that the average 2012 season he put up for Tampa was the peak of his career. Nothing else that he has done in the majors suggest a good hitter of any sort and he's at an age where things may not collapse, but they are probably trending down.

My take : What can you do? There is one good catcher on the FA market this year in Russell Martin. He can hit and he can field.  He's going to cost someone alot with a contract that'll extend right through his decline years. After that it's Geovany Soto (ok hitter, bad defender) or taking an flyer on Nick Hundley (a couple bad offensive years, good defender). In other words there isn't an easily available better option than Wilson Ramos. There also isn't a cheaper younger FA back-up you like more than Lobaton unless you are trying to find a pitch framing star. The Nats are basically stuck with what they have unless they want to trade.

What they have isn't terrible, though. You can still hold out hope for Ramos, at least for one more year. It's quite possible his bad year overall was because of not being 88-game ready thanks to all those recent injuries. He really tanked in Sept (.203 / .221 / .297) but was hitting as well as .292 / .329 / .438 deep into August. I'd expect next year he can give you a decent 100 games. Of course the Nats want him to play 120-130 so there may be another late-season swoon on the way but I'd take a good hitting catcher for 5/6ths of the season. Lobaton may be on the downside of his career now, but I'd expect a mild bounce back from last year's performance if someone can get him to just pay a bit more attention to getting on base.

Ramos and Lobaton and pray for health. Not great, but probably better than more than half the league. 

Outside the Box Suggestion :

Ramos' trade value is shot so trading for a good player in return and then signing Martin is not an option. And good catchers are an even rarer commodity so a straight up catcher deal for a decent catcher is again not going to happen. Even looking at it a round about way - say trading from a Nats strength like the rotation, it would be tough to find a decent catcher that could get dealt.  Posey won't. Gomes and Mesoraco are too cheap to deal even for a good pitcher. After that you get into guys you shrug at. Probably better, but probably not that much better than healthy Ramos.

An interesting possibility could be Lucroy who's got two more years before FA probably takes him away from Milwaukee.  That's the kind of contract the Nats like. But to get him would probably take more than a good pitcher (like Wisconsin native ZNN) because of the impending FA. Would you be willing to give up say ZNN and Cole for Lucroy?  I don't think so.

You're best bet for an outside the box idea then is trying to deal him straight up for another catching prospect that hasn't panned out yet.  A challenge deal of sorts. The two best bets there are Hank Conger (Chris Iannetta is the #1 there) or Tony Sanchez if Russell Martin returns to the Pirates. Not a great plan I know but unless you are insane and think Bryce can move back to catcher, it's the best I got.


Chas R said...

This was an easy piece to write Harper. There really isn't any better alternative. I was a bit surprised at how bad the Buffalo got in September - October. He just really looked tired at the plate, flailing at off speed pitches. I hope he has a good offseason conditioning program.

cass said...

Steamer is optimistic on Ramos. They have him as the 5th best catcher in baseball by WAR (3.7) but that's with too much playing time (551 PA). They have his K's going down, BB's up, and ISO back to previous levels. They project his slash at .270/.317/.439 which comes out to a .330 wOBA.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to give Ramos another year just because his offensive value comes from his power and hamate bone injuries just sap that power. I seem to remember a quote from him mentioning that a number of times he thought he got one only to see it die short of the wall. I don't think it is a huge leap to question whether he started over-swinging to try to regain the power which would have a trickle down effect.

So I think you give him a chance to show that when he has his power back that he can return to his old numbers.

Froggy said...

Ramos could benefit from some Crossfit and drop a few pounds to help with resiliency and reduce his injury rate. He is still a young buffalo after all.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it's related to his injury problems, but it seems like Ramos tends to glove balls in the dirt instead of blocking them with his body like Chooch Ruiz.

Jay said...

I think you give him next year and hope the power comes back. We'll see if he can stay healthy. The strange thing for poor Ramos is that it is always strange injuries.

You could go all crazy Nats fan and move Harper back to catcher and put Zimmerman in LF and keep LaRoche at 1st. Realistically, the only other option would be paying through the nose for Russell Martin and likely trading Ramos for anything. I'd rather spend that money on extensions for Desmond and crew.

The only place I can see trying to upgrade the bats is at 2nd or 3rd.

Anonymous said...


What about this for an "outside the box" trade idea: trade a couple promising pitching prospects or a Matt Skole/Sammy Solis for Red Sox prospect catcher, Blake Swihart. He's rated the number 2 prospect in their organization and is only 22 years old. But the Sox recently named Christian Vazquez the guy of the maybe this is worth looking at?

Swihart threw out 42 percent of would-be basestealers in 2013, leading the Carolina League. He has improved his game management, and he uses his athleticism well behind the plate. A switch-hitter, Swihart makes consistent hard contact from both sides of the plate. His swing is more geared for line drives now, but he projects to have average power. Swihart has toned down his aggressive approach somewhat, though he wouldn't be confused with a patient hitter. He is faster than most catchers, and he isn't a baseclogger. A word from his scouting reports...:

"Swihart threw out 42 percent of would-be basestealers in 2013, leading the Carolina League. He has improved his game management, and he uses his athleticism well behind the plate. A switch-hitter, Swihart makes consistent hard contact from both sides of the plate. His swing is more geared for line drives now, but he projects to have average power. Swihart has toned down his aggressive approach somewhat, though he wouldn't be confused with a patient hitter. He is faster than most catchers, and he isn't a baseclogger. Swihart is still a work in progress, but he has the potential to be an impact player in the Major Leagues."

Harper said...

Last Anon : From what I know Vazquez has been named as the starter for 2015 but in a "Let's see if he can hit ok and if Swihart forces his way into the majors" kind of way. So they haven't given up on Swihart yet. They are simply giving the better defender (and older guy) the first crack. If Vazquez hits expect Swihart to start playing another spot or dangled for a good return. But right now I think the asking price would probably be too high. I've heard Swihart as the centerpiece in returns for guys like Chris Sale and Gio Stanton. So no, Solis ain't going to do it.

Chinatown Express said...

I'd amend your recommendation slightly, Harper: Stick with Ramos and Lobaton, pray for health, but be ready to trade mid-season for a replacement if necessary. Our window is too small to be endangered by a beat-up catcher. On the other hand, I still think Ramos is going to be a ++ catcher in the majors. His injuries have largely been fluky, and I have no reason to think he'll suffer any more fluky injuries. Call me if he gets kidnapped again.

Anonymous said...

I know it's time to move on but it's still kind of frustrating that it's already time for the offseason position discussion. I look forward to the discussion of who the seventh inning guy is.

KW said...

I had been thinking about a potential upgrade at catcher and had basically come to the same conclusion - that there aren't many good catchers out there, and to make a significant upgrade would cost too much. The only other name I came up with was former Nat farm hand Derek Norris, just because Beane will trade anyone if the price is right. But Billy wouldn't want Ramos, with his low OBP and high swing-and-miss.

Get Ramos in shape, and try to get him to shorten his swing a bit and make more contact. That's probably the most viable "option."

DezoPenguin said...

Yeah, Plan A isn't bad, really; the problem is what happens when Ramos inevitably breaks down again. Barring miracles, the Nats really need to think of their #3 catcher slot the way other teams think of #2.

The outside-the-box idea would be, I suppose, signing Martin to be the #1, keep Ramos as the #2, and trade Lobaton to somebody seeking a backup catcher, maybe as part of a larger package to try and get something otherwise useful. Maybe Lobaton, Leon, Tyler Moore, and Espinosa to the Tigers for Ian Kinsler, because apparently Rizzo's got blackmail pics of Dombrowski.