Nationals fans would love to deal John Lannan for a catcher but it won't be quite that easy with his diminished trade value. (Image Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE)

Boston's Ties To Washington's Perceived Catching Need

Overcoming injury has been a theme to the start of the 2012 season for the Washington Nationals, yet it hasn’t kept the team out of first place thus far. Once the team suffered a series of injuries to their catching depth it was only natural for some speculation to begin regarding the organization’s possible search for added options. Despite the perceived need the likelihood of making a deal remains unclear.

When Wilson Ramos first landed on the Disabled List due to his torn ACL there was no questioning the fact that Jesus Floreswould receive the bulk of the at bats in the team’s starting lineup. Flores, as you likely recall, was once viewed as the organization’s catcher of the future before a serious shoulder injury cost him the bulk of the 2009 season. Injuries kept him out until the end of the 2011 campaign, costing him nearly two years of playing time and his status as a vital piece of the lineup moving forward.

Jesus Flores was once viewed as a major piece of the Nationals' future. That future is now after Wilson Ramos' injury. (Image Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE)

But Flores, who won’t turn 28 until after this season concludes, remained vigilent about returning to the Nationals’ roster in order to contribute to the team. Since making his return to Washington late last July, Flores is batting a combined .209/.255/.284 with just one home run and seven RBI over 145 plate appearances (47 games). He’s looked overmatched at times, perhaps a byproduct of missing nearly two full seasons, and while he was never a big power threat, the power has all but vanished since his injuries.

Now, instead of a backup role, he’s been thrust into starting duties once again with little depth behind him. Upon placing Ramos on the DL, effectively ending his season, the organization elected to recall Sandy Leon from their Double-A affiliate to join the roster in a backup role. Leon, who’d been hitting .319/.356/.457 in 102 plate appearances on the year at the time of his callup, would join the team in time for Mother’s Day and would make his MLB Debut the following afternoon. His stay would be short, however, as he too suffered an injury (high ankle sprain) that will keep him out of the lineup for an extended period of time.

Enter Carlos Maldonado, a 33 year old longtime minor leaguer with limited MLB experience. Maldonado holds a career .185/.274/.370 line over 62 plate appearances (25 games) with the Pittsburgh Pirates (2006-2007) and Nationals (2010). In over 1,000 career minor league games (1,184 to be exact) he’s never been a big offensive threat, compiling a .255/.328/.358 line. He’s serviceable in a limited backup role but cannot be counted on for regular production.

Washington has one other catcher on their current 40-man roster, Jhonatan Solano, but he too has been dealing with an injury for much of the season. He has not appeared in a game since April 20th due to what Luke Erickson at is reporting is a hernia problem. When he returns to the lineup is uncertain.

So what exactly is Washington to do moving forward?

As Blaine Blontz of Call to the Pen discussed earlier in the week, Washington reportedly had a scout in Boston shortly after Leon’s injury in order to watch the Red Sox catchers. Boston, who’s currently dealing with their own injury concerns and disappointing performances, seemingly has depth at one of the shallowest positions across Major League Baseball. It is understandable why any team in need of a catcher may end up being linked to them in the coming weeks but a deal is no guarantee.

The most likely of the Boston catchers to be dealt would appear to be Kelly Shoppach. The veteran was signed by Boston this past offseason to a one year deal, partly because it allowed the organization to part with long time captain Jason Varitek (who subsequently retired). The 32 year old veteran is in his 8th Major League season and holds a career line of .225/.316/.418 with 60 HR in 1,544 plate appearances over 477 games. That includes the .250/.350/.442 line he’s posted so far in 2012 (in 61 plate appearances). He’s regarded as a strong defensive catcher and has shown a little power at the plate, but he’s never been able to successfully hold down full time catching duties since arriving in the Majors.

Boston could potentially move their starting catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, though that seems unlikely at this point. Salty has been in the midst of a breakout season for Boston this year, batting .269/.296/.527 with five home runs and 15 RBI in 98 plate appearances. The former top prospect has certainly had his struggles at the Major League level, causing some to wonder over the years whether he’s more of your typical 4-A player (i.e. too good for the minors, not good enough for the Majors). Despite the doubters, Salty seems likely to stick with Boston barring an offer that simply blows the organization away.

The team’s top offensive prospect (aside from Will Middlebrooks who has actually looked more impressive than Bryce Harper since making his debut) is another catcher, Ryan Lavarnway. He debuted late last season and impressed at the plate and behind it. Thanks to the roster numbers he’s spent this year in Triple-A, batting .269/.369/.361 through 141 plate appearances (32 games). Lavarnway is also unlikely to be traded as he would be the most likely candidate to be recalled should Boston deal one of the two catchers on their active roster. The cost for Lavarnway and/or Saltalamacchia would likely be too prohibitive for Washington anyways, considering they really only need a catcher for the remainder of this season. Both are under contract for longer.

So, that would appear to leave Shoppach as the only likely option that Boston may deal and on the surface, Washington doesn’t really appear to be the best fit. Shoppach would first need to approve a trade, as any free agent signing this past offseason cannot be dealt until June without their consent. That aside, there’s no guarantee he’d be able to offer better production than what Flores may provide at the plate and behind it.

The other part of this equation is what Washington would need to give up in order to obtain Shoppach from the Red Sox. Boston has been plagued by problems with their pitching staff all season, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Washington could potentially dangle a starter, either John Lannan or Chien-Ming Wang, but that may not be enough to entice the Red Sox. Lannan has been struggling since being demoted to Triple-A (and subsequently requesting a trade) which limits his value to another organization. Wang has looked sharp while rehabbing from injury and his return seems eminent. His value, however, is mostly tied into the depth he provides the organization considering the innings totals that Washington’s starters are currently projected to reach before season’s end. There have also been reports suggesting that despite the growing level of interest in Wang across baseball, the Nationals are hesitant to move him.

Beyond the perceived lack of value either would provide to Boston, the Red Sox have more starters than they do spots in the rotation. They have received underwhelming performances so far from Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholtz while Felix Dubront and Daniel Bard may both be facing similar innings limits that the Nationals have placed on Stephen Strasburg. However, Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka are both nearing the end of their injury rehab stints, giving the team reinforcements that could be ready by mid-June. Poor performances aside, Boston already has too many starting options. Lannan and/or Wang might not be considered a better option.

While a bullpen piece could be an option, Washington doesn’t exactly seem to be in position to move someone. Injuries to Drew Storen and Brad Lidge have sucked the depth out of the bullpen and there aren’t many qualified candidates ready at Triple-A to replace someone on the roster. This also limits the team’s ability to part with someone in order to address a need elsewhere.

Washington has certainly run into a stretch of poor luck when it comes to the injury front, particularly with the number they’ve been forced to endure behind the plate. While there is some value in examining the team’s options, it’s worth remembering that they are still a 1st place ballclub even with such an important perceived need.

Tags: Boston Red Sox Carlos Maldonado Chien-Ming Wang Jarrod Saltalamacchia Jesus Flores Jhonatan Solano John Lannan Kelly Shoppach Nationals Red Sox Ryan Lavarnway Sandy Leon Washington Nationals Wilson Ramos

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