September 22, 2014

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview Part III: The Catchers

Wilson Ramos "zooms" to first base on his walk-off single win over Phillies, May 4 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Wilson Ramos “zooms” to first base on his walk-off single win over Phillies, May 4 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

As a whole, the Washington Nationals return mostly intact from the teams that won 98 games in 2012 and 86 games in 2013. This is a veteran team with high aspirations of competing in the World Series. I hardly think rookie manager Matt Williams will boldly proclaim “World Series or Bust” as his predecessor did, but the implications are there.

If the team overachieved in ’12 and underachieved last season, what is the logical progression for 2014? If the ’12 and ‘13 results had been flipped, I think everyone would be riding the Nats as an odd-on favorite this season. They may be anyway.

With a rotation as solid No. 1 through No. 4 as any in baseball, a deep bullpen, an infield full of silver sluggers and a versatile outfield led by a burgeoning superstar, the Washington Nationals seem poised to make noise this season on a national level.

For the next two weeks, District Sports Page will preview the Washington Nationals 2014 season. This week, we’ll do profiles of the players on the 40-man roster and significant non-roster invitees, players that have a chance to make an impact on the Nats roster this season.

Here’s the schedule:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

In week two, we’ll profile the manager and front office, reveal our Top-25 minor leaguers and prospects, examine the “big picture” the Nats this season, and do a little statistical analysis and projecting.

Donning the tools of ignorance…

THE CATCHERS

Wilson Ramos: Ramos enters his age 26 season on an upswing, having mashed 16 homers in 303 PAs last season. The second of those numbers is the troubling one, as Ramos has spent much of the past two seasons recovering from various injuries. When he was healthy in ’11, he amassed 435 PAs and slugged .267/.334/.445. In ’12 he was on pace for that again, but only played 25 games due to knee surgery. Last year, it was a hamstring that limited him to 78 games. You get the point by now. If the Nats can keep Ramos healthy, they have a potential 20+ homer, All-Star behind the plate. If not, they made a move right before spring training to act as insurance.

Jose Lobaton: Meet Wilson Ramos insurance. The Nats acquired Lobaton from the Tampa Bay Rays the day before pitchers and catchers reported, along with two minor league prospects, in exchange for pitcher Nathan Karns. Lobaton is a late bloomer, as the 29-year-old has just 191 games of big league experience. Last year in 311 PAs, the switch-hitter hit .249/.320/.394 with seven homers while taking over when Jose Molina got injured. He’s a good defensive catcher, adept at framing pitches, and is universally praised by pitchers that have worked with him, though he doesn’t have the strongest throwing arm. He is the quintessential backup MLB catcher.

Jhonatan Solano: The man they call “Onion” has a great story – riding in the back of an onion truck across country lines in South America in order to attend a big league tryout camp. But his playing career is a pretty typical story – adequate behind the plate but not exceptional, just “okay” plate discipline for the position (career .302 OBP in almost 2,000 minor league PAs), and no power. Solano, 28, will continue to toil as a minor league catcher, but the Nats trade for Lobaton says all one needs to know about Solano’s chances in the majors. This was his shot, and instead the Nats went outside the organization and gave up a legitimate asset for help.

Sandy Leon: Leon, 25, just can’t hit. He’s a quality receiver with a good arm, but his lifetime minor league .237/.325/.325 masks his dreadful ’13, as he hit just .177/.294/.252 in 374 PAs. He was enjoying a good 2012, hitting .322/.396/.460 in just 64 games when Ramos’ knee injury necessitated his emergency call-up to the bigs. Then, in his debut game, he was run over by Chase Headley on a play at the plate, suffering a high ankle sprain that robbed him of much of the rest of his season. Perhaps his 2013 numbers were stifled with regaining strength in the leg. But nothing he had done prior to his outburst in ’12 indicates any real long-term gain.

Chris Snyder: Snyder was signed as a non-roster invitee and will probably be Solano’s caddy in Syracuse, kept around in case of catastrophic injury behind the plate. He was once a very useful catcher with pop, but at 33 he’s just hanging on for now.

Koyie Hill: Hill, 35, was once a highly-regarded catching prospect, but that clearly was last decade. He’s never hit in the Majors (.206/.266/.287) and was signed principally as a spring training bullpen catcher with Major League experience.

Washington Nationals 2012 Roster Review: The Catchers

The Washington Nationals finished the 2012 season with the best regular season record in their short history since the relocation in 2005 at 98-64 and a bitterly disappointing loss in the best-of-five National League Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. In this series, we’ll take a look at each of the 43 players that appeared for the Nats in this historic season, grade them, and evaluate their position going forward. Age listed is 2013 Opening Day; grades are relative to expectation.

Today, we look at the catchers.

Jesus Flores (28): 296 plate appearances. .213/.248/.329. 12 doubles, 1 triple, 6 homers, 26 RBIs. 59 Ks/13 BBs. Flores proved his health this season, but showed little at the plate and struggled throwing out base runners (9-of 60, 15%), though that’s symptomatic of all Nats catchers due to the pitchers’ problems with holding runner. Flores is third-year arbitration eligible so his salary will bump up from his $850 base last season, though probably not appreciably enough to warrant letting him go for that reason alone. He’ll stand third on the depth chart however entering spring training, so it’s not out of the question the team does not offer him arbitration and allows him to leave as a free agent. Grade: C-

Kurt Suzuki (29): 164 plate appearances. .267/.321/.404. 5 doubles, 0 triples, 5 homers, 25 RBIs. 20 Ks/11 BBs. Acquired in a mid-season trade, Suzuki did everything the Nats hoped he would upon arrival. He mightily struggled in Oakland this season after several years on 15-homer power. Reunited with Davey Johnson and Rick Eckstein, who had him with the U.S. Olympic team, Suzuki cut down his stroke and made better contact in the N.L. Threw out 5-of-33 (15.1%) of base stealers in N.L. after nabbing 23-of-60 (38.3%) in A.L. in first half speaks to Nats pitchers complete ineptitude of holding runners. Under contract through 2013 for $5.21M with team option in ’14. Will enter spring as No. 1 catcher. Grade: B

Wilson Ramos (25): 96 plate appearances. .265/.354/.398. 2 doubles, 0 triples, 3 homers, 10 RBIs. 19 Ks, 12 BBs. Ramos remains the Nationals best long-term fixture at the position, but after tearing the ACL and meniscus in his right knee in May and the subsequent surgeries June 1 and July 18, Ramos might not be ready to start catching in spring training. Even then, they will want to take an abundance of caution not to put full-time stress on that knee until he’s in full baseball shape. Threw out 4-for-23 (17.3%) base stealers in limited time. Will be backup and work his way back into the lineup as the season progresses and he gets stronger. Ramos is not arbitration eligible until 2014. Grade: incomplete-injury

Jhonatan Solano (27): 37 plate appearances. .314/.351/.571. 3 doubles, 0 triples, 2 homers, 6 RBIs. 5 Ks/2 BBs. The man they call “Onion” made his Major League debut at age 26 this season and didn’t look overmatched at the plate at all. But he’s a career .250/.306/.339 hitter in seven minor league seasons, so Solano isn’t a real prospect. He’s thrown out 33 percent of base stealers in the minors though, so he has some proficiency behind the plate. Still, he looks more like organizational depth than a player looking to get a chance in to prove himself in the big leagues. Battled an oblique injury all year that limited him to just 141 total plate appearances across Majors and minors.  Grade: A, in extremely limited duty.

Sandy Leon (24): 36 plate appearances. .267/.389/.333. 2 doubles, 0 triples, 0 homers, 2 RBIs. 11 Ks/4 BBs. Leon was the unfortunate catcher that was called up, started, and injured in his first game. He came back later in the season for a few at bats after the roster expanded. He hit .322/.396/.460 across three levels in the minors this season, mostly for AA-Harrisburg so he looks like he has a pretty good idea of what to do at the plate. Not eligible for arbitration. Grade: B

 Carlos Maldonado (34): 12 plate appearances. .000/.182/.000. 1 RBI. 4 Ks/2 BBs. Maldonado has amassed 74 plate appearances in parts of four Major League seasons. He’s a AAA catcher, only to be used at the Major League level in the most dire of circumstances. He could return as a minor league free agent to catch at Syracuse.

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