The Nationals' Answer at Catcher is in Triple-A

With Keibert Ruiz struggling mightily this year after a rough 2023 campaign, what do the Nationals do at catcher? The answer may not be what you think.
Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants
Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants / Thearon W. Henderson/GettyImages

Max Scherzer. Trea Turner. Two of the best Nationals in team history, and at least one of them, if not both, are set to become Hall of Famers in Nationals uniforms. After an up-and-down 2021 and no clear path ahead, Mike Rizzo pulled the trigger on the biggest trade in Nationals history (of course until the Soto trade the next season), shipping Scherzer and Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Donovan Casey, and Gerardo Carillo. Keibert Ruiz, the 41st best prospect in baseball according to at the time, was the prize of the deal along with Gray. 

In Triple-A in 2022, Ruiz was slashing .311/.381/.631 through 52 games with 16 home runs at the time of the trade, with the 22-year-old skyrocketing up prospect boards due to also ranking as a plus defender. Ruiz’s scouting report sounds all too familiar: "he has solid raw power but will not tap into it until he becomes more selective for pitches he can drive... and he has some “lapses” behind the plate".

Ruiz seemed to silence most of the noise in 2022, putting together a very good year in his rookie campaign. Ruiz posted 1.5 fWAR in 112 games, hitting 7 home runs with a 91 wRC+. Ruiz ranked as a plus defender and posted an above-average wRC+ for the catching position. Ruiz was a good defender, above above-average hitter, and only 23 years old. He was rewarded with a lucrative 8-year $50 million contract in the offseason, locking up a promising young player entering his prime. Then, 2023 happened. 

Jose Abreu, Andrew Benintendi, Keibert Ruiz, Joey Meneses, and Tim Anderson. What do these 5 players have in common? Since the start of 2023 among qualified players, they are the worst 5 players in baseball according to fWAR. What has gone wrong with Ruiz you ask? Well, pretty much everything. His hitting discipline is horrendous, his pop time is laughable, he ranks as one of the worst blockers in the league, and a below-average framer. Keibert, as of May 21st, is batting .165, with a 26 wRC+. He has a -1.0 fWAR. He has only played in 28 games. The Keibert discourse has been nauseating, and in my mind, it is time to pivot. 

Keibert Ruiz
Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

I love Riley Adams as a backup catcher, but his bat is too inconsistent, especially against righties, to play every day. Instead of sticking with Keibert or looking at external options, the Washington Nationals' answer is right under their nose in Triple-A.

Drew Millas is the Nationals' answer at catcher

I know it was only one game. I know Millas is not even close to the prospect Keibert was at his peak, but let me walk you through one of the more impressive displays on the baseball diamond from a catcher I have seen this year. On an April 10th game vs the San Fransisco Giants against a tough right-handed pitcher in Jordan Hicks, the switch-hitting Millas laid down a beautiful bunt and legged it out for a hit. If that was not surprising enough, Millas then stole second base. That was his only hit of the season in six at-bats, but in 33 plate appearances at the MLB level in 2022, Millas slashed .286/.375/.464 with a home run and only 6 strikeouts. 

The 26-year-old came to Washington in the Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison trade to the Oakland Athletics, putting up average numbers in the minors before the 2023 season. After tearing up AA to start the season to the tune of a 176 wRC+, Millas was an average hitting in AAA through 56 games, before getting the call to the majors. With Ruiz and Adams locked in to begin the season on the roster, Millas has played a majority of the season every day in Triple-A. He has not disappointed. 

Millas is currently slashing .299/.341/.558, with 5 home runs and 3 stolen bases in 22 games. Millas’s analytics fare even better, with an inflated wOBA showing he has been slightly unlucky at the plate. Millas is a strong defender, a switch hitter who has power from both sides of the plate and can even provide value running the bases. Millas has Ruiz beat in every single category. 

So, what do the Nationals do?

If there is any benefit to the Ruiz contract, it is that with a $6.25 million average annual value, Ruiz’s contract still allows him to be a reasonable backup catcher. He will continue to get the bulk of the chances, but if he and Millas continue to have opposite correlations with their statistics, Millas needs to get a shot. Let's hope for a Ruiz turnaround before it gets even uglier.