Washington Nationals: How should they fix their catching spot?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: Matt Wieters #32 of the Washington Nationals reacts after striking out against the Chicago Cubs during the fifth inning in game five of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: Matt Wieters #32 of the Washington Nationals reacts after striking out against the Chicago Cubs during the fifth inning in game five of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

The Washington Nationals were among the most complete teams in 2017, but their catchers struggled. How can they improve for 2018?

The Washington Nationals’ catchers were complete sinkholes in 2017.

Matt Wieters and Jose Lobaton soaked up 98 percent of the team’s plate appearances, and both posted career-worst seasons. The Nationals’ catching duo combined for the lowest OPS among backstops in baseball (.594) and racked up minus-0.8 wins above replacement.

Not only did Wieters hit a paltry .225/.288/.344 over 123 games, his catastrophic Game 5 performance practically handed the Cubs the NLDS win.

Lobaton, who turns 33 this month, is a free agent, and should not be back in Washington. He has batted .210/.281/.307 with limited defense over four seasons with the Nats, and then in 2017, Lobaton collapsed from ‘sub-par backup’ to ‘totally unplayable.’ His .525 OPS ranked 386th out of 391 position players with at least 150 plate appearances. Nine pitchers were more productive at the dish!

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Wieters could hit the free agent market, but he seems much more likely to pick up his $10.5 million player option. He turns 32 next spring and was the fourth-worst offensive player in baseball among players with at least 450 plate appearances. No one will be offering more than he will get from the Nationals.

The Nationals do have Pedro Severino and Raudy Read as other catching options on the 40-man roster. Severino is still young – just 24 years old – but he has posted only a .640 OPS across two Triple-A seasons, and struggled even further in his cup of coffee with the big club in 2017. At this point, he’s probably not more than an emergency option.

Read was solid in 108 Double-A games this past season, but probably still needs another full year of Triple-A before he is seriously considered for a major-league role (Read and Severino are the Nationals’ 14th and 15th overall prospects, according to MLB.com).

If there are no internal solutions, the Nats will be forced to dive into free agency for a catcher. Rizzo should be looking for a starter, but Wieters’ relatively pricey deal may make that impossible. The Nationals ownership group is willing to shell out for top talent (see Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg), but does not like to spend on role players. It seems unlikely that the Nationals will invest $20+ million into their 2018 catchers.

Here is the list of notable battery mates who will be available this winter.

PlayerAge2017 OPS2017 PA
A. Avila31.834376
W. Castillo*31.813365
A. Ellis37.669163
N. Hundley34.691303
C. Iannetta35.865316
J. Lucroy32.716481
M. Montero34.656213
R. Rivera34.736237
C. Ruiz39.665145

*owns a $7 million player option for 2018, likely to decline

We can automatically cross a few names off the list. A.J. Ellis and Carlos Ruiz are aging and unproductive. Welington Castillo and Jonathan Lucroy, even with the latter coming off a down season, will likely seek richer deals than the Nats are willing to cash. That leaves five names: Alex Avila, Nick Hundley, Chris Iannetta, Miguel Montero, and Rene Rivera.

Because of his contract and status across the league, Wieters will still receive regular playing time, even if he is not the nominal starter. That means the Nationals are looking at a possible platoon situation, which could work.

Wieters is a different hitter against lefties than righties (.790 career OPS against southpaws). He’ll be able to handle the short side of the platoon, so Rizzo should be looking for a righty masher to cover the rest of the at-bats.

Rivera has been awful against right-handers throughout his career, while Hundley and Iannetta have been merely league average. That leaves Avila (.789 OPS vs. righties) and Montero (.781 OPS) as the best platoon options available.

Avila blasted 14 homers off righties in 2017, and totaled an .876 OPS, his best season since 2011. Even if he is not hitting, Avila is still a valuable player; he is a solid defender and owns the second-highest walk rate among catchers since 2009.

Montero, meanwhile, suffered through the worst overall season of his career and angered enough Cubs players to get himself designated for assignment mid-season. Avila should clearly be the Nationals’ top free agent target.

However, the Nationals may consider even Avila to get too pricey. Avila turns 31 in January, so this could be his last opportunity to receive a multi-year deal. That shouldn’t necessarily scare the Nats off, because they are going to need a catcher for 2019, but we have seen ownership limit Rizzo in the past.

Best case scenario, the Nats bring in Avila on a one-year contract within an additional option season. A two-year deal would also be suitable, as the Nationals could let Wieters walk following 2018, and hopefully fill his role with either Severino or Read the following year.

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But if a bidding war ensues, I don’t see the Nationals extending to a third or even fourth year for Avila. Washington should not tie itself to a flawed catcher on the wrong side of 30 with so many key roster parts – namely Bryce Harper – potentially moving on after 2018.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.