With Wilson Ramos, thankfully saved from his horrific kidnapping this past November, and Jesus Flores now finally once again healthy, the Washington Nationals seem to have a comfortable situation at catcher. So comfortable, in fact, that they included high-potential minor league backstop Derek Norris in the trade to the Oakland Athletics for star southpaw Gio Gonzalez.
Last season, Ramos established himself as a budding star under the tutelage of certain future Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. In only 435 plate appearances, he hit 15 home runs and had a .334 on-base percentage and .779 OPS, (5th best among National League catchers with at least 400 plate appearances in 2011). That mark was 3rd best among Nationals regulars, behind only Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman. His on-base percentage was also 3rd best on the Nats last season.
Until his injury problems shelved him for nearly three seasons, Flores was the presumed starting catcher in Washington, a budding star in his own right. His dominant statistics in Venezuelan winter ball this season appear to foretell his return to complete health. He recently told the Washington baseball writers that he considers himself 100% and good enough to start, either with the Nationals or another club.
So, with Ramos, 24, and Flores, 27 on board, the Nationals catching situation in 2012 seems settled. However, neither player’s potential 2012 performance is question-free. Ramos must avoid injury and second-year problems that cause some young players to regress. He no longer has Pudge, his childhood hero and mentor, on board to assist him either. (Although that could change – read on.)
Flores’ talent has never been an issue. Staying on the field is. He has never played a full season, even as a back-up, save 2007, when the Nationals had to keep him on board after snatching him from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft.
When healthy, Flores can punish major league pitching. Prior to his injuries he also performed well in clutch situations. His defense remains questionable, however. He has thrown out only 29% of attempted stealers in his brief major league career. If he remains healthy, his bat will keep him in the big leagues.
How about minor league options? The third catcher on the 40-man roster is Jhonatan Solano, age 26. In 2011, Solano had a nice year in 78 games for the Syracuse Chiefs, Washington’s AAA affiliate. He hit for a .713 OPS, but threw out only 26% of attempted base stealers. Those numbers are the opposite of his earlier performance in the minors. In six seasons, covering 1,725 plate appearances, Solano has a pedestrian .650 OPS, and a 33% caught stealing rate. He projects as the consummate 4-A player. If Ramos or Flores suffers an extended injury the talent drop-off to Solano is steep.
At AAA, Carlos Maldonado (33), who saw brief time in DC in 2010 and Beau Seabury (27) are on the current Syracuse roster. Both are defensive specialists, with little to offer at bat. Maldonado’s OPS in 16 minor league seasons is .687. Seabury’s is .612. Maldonado’s caught stealing rate is 30%, while Seabury’s is a much more impressive 41%.
Harrisburg (AA-level) currently has no catchers on its roster. Potomac (High A) has one, another defensive specialist, Sandy Leon. Only 23 years-old, he has 1,280 plate appearances over five seasons. His OPS is .674. He has a cannon arm. In 2011, he caught 53% of runners attempting to steal. His career rate is 46%.
Hagerstown (Low A) has four catchers on its spring roster. Two are plodders, Cole Leonida (23 years-old, .576 OPS, 29% caught stealing rate in two seasons) and Sam Palace (25, .669 OPS, 14%), who will likely never see AA, let alone Washington. The other two, David Freitas and Adrian Nieto, are excellent prospects, who should climb to higher ranks on the Washington farm in 2012.
At Hagerstown last season, Freitas hit for a .859 OPS, with a .409 on-base percentage. He has some work to do defensively, as he caught only 28% of base stealers. Nieto, injured much of the season, saw limited time at Auburn (rookie league), Hagerstown, and Potomac. He performed well (.810 OPS, 32% caught stealing rate).
Looking over this contingent, the Nationals catching situation, especially if Ramos suffers injury, is worrisome for a team with playoff aspirations. Ramos is the only “proven” major leaguer in the organization. He has all of 1 ½ years of experience. Flores may become an excellent #2 backstop, but he remains a question mark.
The other catchers are either of limited talent (Solano, Maldonado, Seabury) or will not be ready for the majors until 2013, at best (Leon, Freitas, Nieto).
Mike Rizzo cannot be oblivious to this tenuous situation. Expect the Nationals’ General Manager to address this issue before the end of spring training. He will likely scour the waiver wires or make a low-level trade, especially if a power-hitting left-handed batting catcher with decent defensive abilities is available (think skills similar to former Nat Brian Schneider). If Ramos or Flores go down with a serious injury, expect Rizzo to push speed dial to get Pudge on the phone.
One other intriguing possibility – should (once?) Bryce Harper makes the Nationals’ roster, he becomes a ready-made emergency catcher since he played the position well in high school and junior college.
Nationals’ fans certainly anticipate such desperate measures will not be needed. They hope Ramos and Flores remain healthy and perform up to expectations. Anything less and the Nationals season may be disappointing for want of major league-ready depth at catcher.