Why The Washington Nationals Have a Messy Catcher Situation Going Forward

Feb 23, 2016; Viera, FL, USA; Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos (40) looks on during a work out at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 23, 2016; Viera, FL, USA; Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos (40) looks on during a work out at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports /
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With Wilson Ramos in the final year of his deal, the Nats may have a problem at catcher going forward after this season. 

It’s no secret that the Washington Nationals have a less than ideal catcher situation, in both the majors and the minors. Of course, injuries put a dent in flexibility at the position; Ramos played 128 games last season and Jose Lobaton played 44. But much of the mess stems from Wilson Ramos’ consistently below-average performance.

The 2010 trade that sent Matt Capps and pitching prospect Jose Testa to the Twins for Ramos seemed like a steal at the time. In hindsight, it still is. Capps significantly declined and Testa never made it past AA.

In 2010, Aaron Fitt of Baseball America said Ramos’ play was “impressive because of the way he protects his pitcher…I think he profiles as a .250-type hitter with 10 to 15 home run potential and strong defense. If he can improve his offense beyond that level, and I do think he has at least a chance to do so, then he can be a valuable catcher.”

Fitt was spot-on. Ramos has a career batting average of .258, and he has hit 15, 16, 11, and 15 home runs in four years with over 50 games played. He was ranked as the Twins’ best defensive catcher prospect in 2010 by Baseball America and his basic defense has been above-average by most standards in the majors. He saved a career-best nine runs last season (according to Fangraphs), and prevented 44% of steals, a league-leading mark.

However, his disappointing overall performance in 2015 changed his outlook dramatically. What was supposed to be a season of limited injuries and progress at the plate instead saw a regression in almost every area. In 128 games, Ramos hit .229/.258/.358 and struck out 101 times, the latter a career high by a large margin.

With the defensive evaluation landscape for catchers shifting to more minute qualities such as pitch-framing, Ramos suffers. He was ranked 24 out of the 33 catchers with over 5,000 pitchers caught in oStr% (according to StatCorner).

oStr% tracks the pitches called for strikes that would normally have been balls with a regulation strike zone. Francisco Cervelli led the MLB with 10.7% while Ramos framed just 6.9%.

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Combined with his poor performance at the plate, this could be his last season in a Nationals uniform. He’ll earn $5 million this year and will be a free agent next November. With the qualities teams now covet in catchers veering away from his actual skill set, he could suffer on the open market.

There isn’t a lot of substance behind him in the Nats’ system, which makes this situation worse. Lobaton is a solid backup; his defense is decent, offense below-average, but that’s what you expect out of a backup. He’s nothing more than that, and we could have used a player in his role coming into this year considering Ramos’ injury history.

It’s not the Nationals’ style to go for quantity rather than quality in the free agent market. However, there were a couple catchers that would have been a clear backup upgrade. Alex Avila ($2.5M with White Sox), Geovany Soto ($2.8M with Angels), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia ($507k with Tigers) were all realistic options near Lobaton’s current salary ($1.3M). However, the Nats weren’t even rumored to go after these options.

A potential trade for longtime Brewer (and coveted pitch-framer) Jonathan Lucroy created buzz just a few weeks ago. Lucroy’s been a solid all-around catcher for quite a while. A swap would have been fantastic for the right price considering Milwaukee’s current situation, but when it came out that the Nationals were on Lucroy’s no-trade list, the talks completely disappeared.

Washington has created the rock and hard place it finds itself between. The only minor-league prospects worth mentioning, Pedro Severino and Jakson Reetz, are a long way from a consistent major league spot. When they get here, they’re projected to be solid backups, and not much more.

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Reetz, 20 years old, is the highest-ranked catcher in the organization. The 2014 3rd Round pick put up a .212/.326/.248 line with four doubles in 36 games and 132 plate appearances for the Auburn Doubledays last season.

Severino, 22, was a 2015 September call-up after hitting .246/.288/.331 line with 13 doubles and five home runs in 91 games and 357 PAs at Double-A Harrisburg.

Clearly, neither of these guys are long-term solutions behind the plate. There won’t be any high-profile catchers on the free agent market next offseason, and a trade seems unlikely.

All the Nationals can do is hope for a better season from Ramos. Ownership is clearly invested in him and will probably offer him a contract no matter how 2016 turns out. Will a full season of health make him a viable offensive threat? How many wins will be lost if that doesn’t happen? We’ll just have to wait and see.