Feb 13, 2014, 11:56 AM EDT
Updated at 1:52 p.m.
VIERA, Fla. — On the day pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, the Nationals dealt one of their hurlers for a No. 2 backstop.
The Nationals traded right-hander Nate Karns to the Rays for catcher Jose Lobaton and two prospects: left-hander Felipe Rivero and outfielder Drew Vettleson.
Karns, the Nationals’ ninth-rated prospect according to Baseball America, was informed of the deal earlier in the morning by general manager Mike Rizzo and was told he was the only player being sent to the Rays.
“Rizzo told me the deal, he just couldn’t pass up on it,” the 26-year-old pitcher said. “I can understand that from a business point. He has a job to do. I have a job to do. There’s no bad feelings. It’s just business.”
Lobaton had been on the Nationals’ radar all winter. The 29-year-old hit .249 with seven homers, 32 RBI and a .714 OPS in 100 games with Tampa Bay last season but became expendable when the Rays re-signed Jose Molina and traded for Ryan Hanigan.
Lobaton will serve as the Nationals’ No. 2 catcher, with Wilson Ramos assured of the primary job, but he offers more of a track record than the group of players who would have been battling for the spot this spring: Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon, Chris Snyder. A switch-hitter with a career .254 batting average against lefties, Lobaton made a name for himself last October when he clubbed a walk-off homer in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Red Sox.
Lobaton has struggled behind the plate in one respect: In his career, he has thrown out only 16 percent of opposing basestealers. The National League average rate last season was 28 percent.
“He’s a good guy,” said Ramos, who has played with Lobaton in their native Venezuela. “Good teammate. Good catcher, too.”
A 12th-round pick in the 2009 draft, Karns had major shoulder surgery in 2011 but bounced back and was named the Nationals’ minor-league pitcher of the year in 2012. He made his major-league debut last season, posting a 7.50 ERA in three starts. He faced long odds of making the Opening Day roster this spring, and some have suggested his best chance for long-term success could be out of the bullpen.
“I’m glad I’m still able to play, and I’m looking forward to playing in Tampa,” he said as he packed his things at Space Coast Stadium and prepared to drive across the state to Port Charlotte. “I’m still trying to swallow the whole pill right now. It’ll probably hit me as I leave this complex, but I’m happy with all the time I’ve had here since 2009. Now, onto the next.”
Rivero, 22, went 9-7 with a 3.40 ERA in 23 starts for the Rays’ high-Class A affiliate last season. Fangraphs rated him Tampa Bay’s 10th-best prospect entering spring training.
Vettleson, 22, hit .274 with a .331 on-base percentage and .388 slugging percentage in 121 games last season, also at high-Class A. He was rated the Rays’ eighth-best prospect by ESPN this winter.
The Nationals, meanwhile, placed right-hander Erik Davis on the 60-day disabled list with a sprained elbow, a move that opened a spot on the club’s 40-man roster for Rivero.
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