If there is one position where opinion is near unanimous among Washington Nationals fans, it’s that the catcher position needs to be upgraded. It hasn’t been good since Wilson Ramos tore up his knee 2 years ago. Mike Rizzo made an effort to resolve the situation last year with Derek Norris which was a dubious choice to start with and ended up with a DFA when domestic issues and poor performance forced Norris out of the majors. The Nats ultimately settled on Matt Wieters who was always injury prone, had mediocre receiving skills, and wasn’t much of a threat offensively. Wieters reputation was that he was a good game caller, and the Nats starting pitchers supported that view. But for $21 mil over 2 years, Wieters simply never delivered the goods.
This year Rizzo attempted to resolve the other catching issue by replacing a hapless Jose Lobaton with Miguel Montero who at one point (last decade) was a very good hitting catcher. It turned out that Montero had nothing left and he was let go almost immediately. When Wieters went on the DL earlier this season, the tandem of Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom was asked to hold down the fort, and it didn’t go well.
“A frontline catcher is a guy we should target and go after,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on 106.7 radio yesterday. “It’s a huge position defensively — first of all. It’s a guy who controls the game, and I think you saw when Wieters went down. The way the pitchers threw to the catchers was as important as any type of offense you’re getting from the catcher position.”
Yes, defense matters but according to Baseball Prospectus, Matt Wieters is near the bottom of catcher’s defense with measurable stats at 97th overall. Maybe Wieters is great pitch caller, but it is not a measurable stat unless you think pitcher’s ERA per catcher is meaningful. Wieters’ pitchers throw less blockable balls, and that becomes another point for debate. How can the Nats primary catcher have 36 catchers ahead of him in blocked balls? That would mean some teams have 2 catchers in front of him.
With regard to the catcher’s situation, I think it’s very clear that the Nats don’t have their every day catcher for 2019 in their system right now. How does that get resolved? Well, there are a number of options and none of them appear easy or straight forward. My favorite approach is to bring back Wilson Ramos for 2 or 3 years while the organization works on developing or acquiring their future catcher without having to make a panic trade which will hurt them in the short-term. This option depends on Wilson’s willingness to sign a reasonable contract, and we need to remember that he is completing a monster offensive year. There are other free agent options led by Yasmani Grandal but there is potential for a huge overpay in his case in a long-term deal.
Another option is attempting to acquire a young catcher via trade and there are pitfalls with that approach as well. Not all big prospects pan out. Boston had a line of big catching prospects throughout the last decade starting with Saltalamachia then Lavarnway and then Swihart, and their starting catcher today is Sandy Leon who was a former Nationals farmhand. The other problem with this approach is that teams aren’t likely to give away a big catching prospect the way the Twins gave away Wilson Ramos for closer Matt Capps because Ramos was blocked by Joe Mauer. I think trading even 1 year of Anthony Rendon for a prospect lotto ticket is a mistake.
“To me, the best catchers in the game handle the pitching staff,” Rizzo continued. “They’re pseudo-pitching coaches on the field. They’re guys that call a game, prepare for the game, and then offense is the cherry on top of the sundae. It’s a position of need, it’s a position that we’re gonna have to target and go after next year.”
One more option is revisiting the Realmuto availability but with the Marlins constantly moving the goal posts that one is not likely to happen. When they reportedly decided that Victor Robles was not enough, it signaled to me that they are willing to be patient, but they want someone to pay them for the mistake they made with the trade of Christian Yelich and others they traded last off-season. Let that be someone else who overpays for Realmuto.
One way or another, catching needs to be near the top of Rizzo’s to-do list, and he says it is a priority in the off-season. It needs to be handled better than it’s been handled over the past 2 years.