The Washington Nationals made a move Thursday to shore up their catching — and restock their minor league system a bit in the process as well.
From the press release:
The Washington Nationals today acquired catcher Jose Lobaton, outfielder Drew Vettleson and left-handed pitcher Felipe Rivero from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for right-handed pitcher Nathan Karns. The Nationals also placed right-handed pitcher Erik Davis on the 60-Day Disabled List with a right elbow sprain. Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo made the announcement.
A native of Acarigua, Venezuela, Lobaton played in a career-high 100 games for Tampa Bay last season and hit .249 with 15 doubles, seven home runs and 32 RBI en route to an above-grade .320 on-base percentage and a .394 slugging mark.
Lobaton, a switch-hitter, will back up starter Wilson Ramos and provide Major League insurance against the possibility of Ramos injury, always a concern with the burly catcher. The Nats signed veteran Chris Snyder to go along with holdovers Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, but it’s been no surprise the Nats have been chasing Lobaton all offseason.
Lobaton is a highly-regarded defensive catcher, adept at framing pitches, something the Tampa organization specializes in. The 29-year-old backstop is a career .228/.311/.343 hitter with nine home runs in 564 plate appearances, with seven of his career homers coming last season when he amassed 311 plate appearances for the Rays.
The two other pieces the Nats receive are intriguing. Vettleson and Rivero were both ranked among the Rays top-10 prospects by different scouting services, though both might have stalled a bit in their development this past season.
Vettleson, 22, was a supplemental first round pick for the Rays in 2010, taken 42nd overall as a high schooler. As a 19-year-old in rookie ball in 2011 he hit .282/.357/.462 with seven homers in 267 PA. In 2012 at Low-A, those number dipped to .275/.340/.432, though his 15 homers and 24 doubles were encouraging. Last season at High-A, however, his numbers fell again (.274/.331/.388) with just four homers. The Nats will probably want to challenge him at Double-A this season, and this appears a make-or-break year for him prospect-wise.
Rivero, 22, is a slight (6’0″, 150) left-handed starting pitching prospect from Venezuela. In parts of five minor league seasons, he’s 29-25 with a 3.45 ERA, 1.298 WHIP, 7.3 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9; both peripherals went the wrong way in 2013 with a promotion to High-A though, as his walk rate went up by more than one walk per nine and the K rate dropped by 1.2. Again, there’s talent there but Rivero is going to have to prove himself in Double-A this season or risk a transfer to the pen.
The Nats get this return in exchange for Nathan Karns, a former 12th round pick, who obviously had fallen in the pecking order in the Nats rotation prospects, passed by Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark and possibly even A.J. Cole. Karns was rated the Nats No. 9 prospect by Baseball America this season and has a big fastball and hard slider, but his other offerings are little more than works in progress right now. He’s 26, so he’s old for a prospect and the Rays obviously see him closer to the bigs in their rotation depth than the Nats do at this time.
I see a lot of Craig Stammen in Karns, and have always believed Karns would excel in the role that Stammen does for the Nats. Still, the Rays gave up a lot to acquire him, so I’m sure they’ll give him every opportunity (and then some) to stick in the rotation.
The other news was bad: reliever Erik Davis, expected to compete for a role in the Nats pen this season, was placed on the 60-day DL with an elbow strain. Davis reported some soreness in the elbow during early throwing in January and after a four-week shutdown, the pain continued once he resumed throwing. He’s slated to be shut down for six to eight weeks at this point with the hopes that the strain heals and Davis can avoid surgery, which would cost him the entire season.