Talk Nats 2023 Season Positional Preview – Catcher

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

Welcome to the 2023 Talk Nats season positional preview! Between now and Opening Day, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about a particular position, eventually covering every spot on the diamond. Below is a deep dive into the catcher position. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section, and as always, Go Nats!

The Starter – Keibert Ruiz 

The Nationals will be rolling with the 24-year-old behind the plate as he looks to build on a strong 2022 campaign. Last season, Ruiz showed he could become one of the best two-way catchers in the Major Leagues. Ruiz threw out 20 runners on the base paths, second in the league, and he compiled the third most stolen base attempts by opposing base runners among all catchers. In addition, Ruiz impressed at the plate, hitting seven homers and 36 RBIs, slashing .251/.313/.360. When the Nationals traded All-Star Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers in 2021, the Dodgers traded Keibert Ruiz to Washington. A switch hitter, Ruiz use’s his unique approach to strategize against opposing pitchers. 

The Nationals have a young core as they enter the 2023 season, and Ruiz is right in the middle of Washington’s youth.

In a recent MLB Network interview, Ruiz told reporters, “I want to let guys know they can trust me…we need to have good communication to win.”

A recent article by CBS Sports projects Ruiz hitting .234 and tallying nine home runs, 39 RBIs, 92 hits, and 22 doubles. That is just a slight improvement from 2022, and Ruiz needs to prove he can take a step up this season, or the Nationals may turn to Riley Adams for the catcher spot.

Bench players – Riley Adams

After years of the Nationals’ catchers being veterans like Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki, the Nationals turned a page and have 24-year-old Ruiz and 26-year-old Riley Adams leading the team behind the plate. Last season both players worked together as Ruiz was injured for part of the season, and Riley Adams took over. In addition, Riley Adams usually was behind the plate when Patrick Corbin took the mound. Throughout the year, Nationals leadership complimented how the pair worked together.

“These two guys sat together a lot and talked a lot, in the clubhouse, on the field,” Manager Davey Martinez said in April. “You always saw these guys together talking about handling the pitching staff, and what they need to do and who we’re facing and how we can get quick outs, so I believe that with the experience they got last year that they’re going to be fine back there.”

Adams will be the primary backup to Ruiz this season as the 26-year-old will look to continue his upwards trajectory. Last season, Adams was on the opening day roster but didn’t last the whole year. During the summer, the Nationals optioned the catcher to Triple-A Rochester.

Martinez later spoke to reporters, “It was tough, but it was about getting him consistent at-bats, getting him down there [to Triple-A], letting him catch every day, also play a little bit of first base, but it was more about just getting him consistent at-bats every day down there,” Martinez said.

Riley was acquired from the Blue Jays in 2021 for Washington reliever Brad Hand. Adams would start 43 games behind the plate, hitting four doubles, five home runs, and slashing .176/.245/.310.  

Top Prospects – Israel Pineda, Drew Millas

At the end of the season, Martinez spoke on the Nationals catcher situation, stating, “We got three good catchers, but I want to get [Pineda] out there and see him play some games.” The Venezuelan product was signed to the team in 2016 for $450,000 and had been developing into a major-league catcher. Pineda started 2022 in single A but made his way to Triple-A Rochester, and in September, Pineda made his major league debut. The 22-year-old posted a combined .258/.325/.458 line for three minor league teams last year and had 400 plate appearances hitting 20 doubles and 16 home runs. Pineda ended the season with the Nationals as Kiebert Ruiz suffered a season-ending injury. At the end of the season, Davey Martinez praised Pineda. “He’s been great, he has, and I think he’s going to be really good one day.”

Drew Millas was acquired by the Nationals via trade and is a switch-hitting catcher who often finds himself on the base paths. Millas was drafted in 2019 out of the 7th round and has been on the top prospect rankings since he joined the league. In his first full season in the Nationals organization, the Missouri State product slashed .225/.340/.350 with 36 RBIs and 65 hits in 341 at-bats and 88 starts. Millas should be the fourth catcher on the Nationals’ depth chart behind Ruiz, Adams, and Pienada. During the 2021 trade deadline, Millas was the third catcher acquired by the Nationals.

“Getting traded at the same time as Ruiz and Adams was interesting,” Millas said to reporters in his first game while playing in the Arizona Fall League. “Whatever organization you’re in, you’re competing with all the other catchers, trying to distinguish yourself.” 

Divisional Rankings per FanGraphs WAR 

  1. J.T. Realmuto, Phillies
  2. Sean Murphy, Atlanta Braves
  3. Keibert Ruiz, Washington Nationals 
  4. Omar Narvaez, New York Mets 
  5. Jacob Stallings, Miami Marlins

The Phillies are rolling with J.T. Realmuto as their starting catcher this season. After a rough two months to start the season, the veteran got hot at the right time last season as he hit .311/.366/.591 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs. Realmuto was also a stud behind the plate as he earned his second Gold Glove and third Silver Slugger, leading all MLB catchers with a 6.5 fWAR.

The Braves completed a blockbuster offseason trade, acquiring Athletics catcher Sean Murphy, who had a career year last season. In 148 games and 612 plate appearances, Murphey hit a combined .250/.332/.426 with 37 doubles, 66 RBIs, and 18 home runs. In addition, Murphey struck out 20.3% of his at-bats, which is a career-low. Behind the plate, Murphey threw out 31% of opposing runners behind the plate and even received an MVP vote. The New York native looks to build on an impressive 2022 campaign. Along with Murphy, Atlanta has another top-ten catcher in the MLB with Travis D’Arnaud.

Last season D’Arnaud contributed heavily in Atlanta, hitting a career-high 18 homers and striking out 21.1% of the time, which is the first time since 2017 he’s been under 23%. In addition, defensively D’Arnaud earned Gold Glove finalist honors and was nominated for his first-ever all-star game. Murphy and D’Arnaud are a scary duo that are looking like the best pair in the NL East.

Omar Nárvaez will start the season as the Mets’ starting catcher, but according to various Mets reports, Fransico Álvarez may take over the starting role. Nárvaez didn’t produce great results last season, hitting just 206/.292/.307 in 296 plate appearances in Milluwakre. The Mets also have Tomas Nido, who could share the catcher position. Nido showed potential at the end of the season, although his role was often to move runners. He led the MLB with 12 sacrifice bunts.  

Miami comes in last at the catcher position, as Jacob Stalling’s wasn’t consistent enough in 2022. After a great 2021 season, Stallings saw his numbers decrease last year as his OPS dropped to .584, and he only hit four home runs. Advanced analytics say Stalling regressed behind the plate as he had a -4.3 framing runs in 2022 and only threw out 19% of opposing runners.

Fan Graphs Stats Projection

The best-case scenario for 2023: Keibert Ruiz becomes an all-star catcher and top 10 in the MLB, and his contact hitting improves.

The worst-case scenario for 2023: The Nationals are hit with injuries all season long, and Pineda and Millas leave the minors early without maximizing their development.

Overall position grade: B


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