Feb 13, 2014, 4:32 PM EST
VIERA, Fla. — Mike Rizzo had attempted all winter to upgrade his catching depth but insisted all along he’d be comfortable entering spring training with Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon or Chris Snyder backing up starter Wilson Ramos.
And then on the first day of camp, Rizzo pulled off a deal long suspected, acquiring Jose Lobaton from the Rays and confirming he preferred a more reliable No. 2 catching option all along.
In dealing right-hander Nate Karns to Tampa Bay for Lobaton and two prospects, Rizzo found an experienced catcher capable not only of giving Ramos occasional days off but also stepping in to start on a long-term basis should Ramos’ injury history crop up yet again.
“Out of the group of catchers, he fit the criteria we’re looking for,” Rizzo said during an impromptu news conference in the press box at Space Coast Stadium. “He blocks balls well. He frames pitches well. He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s a good offensive catcher and a guy who’s caught a championship-caliber staff and caught 100 games last year. So he fit a lot of the criteria that we were looking for and was a guy that passed the makeup test and the character test. It was just a good fit for us.”
Lobaton, 29, has 191 games of big-league experience under his belt, 100 of them coming last season with the AL Wild Card-winning Rays. His .249/.320/.714 offensive slash line was average for a catcher. (His OPS+ of 100 suggests he was exactly an average offensive catcher.) He has had some issues throwing out runners — his 16 percent career caught rate is 12 points below the NL average last season — but as we’ve seen in D.C., that’s not always the catcher’s fault.
What sold Rizzo on Lobaton in particular was his pitch-framing ability.
“It’s a measurable metric,” the GM said. “Our statistical analysis people rank all the catchers in baseball, and he ranks very well in the framing.”
Rizzo also craves players who are under team control beyond one year, and so of course Lobaton fits that bill: He can’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season and is making a relatively affordable $900,000 salary this year.
How much game action, though, can Lobaton be expected to receive in Washington? Ramos said in September he wanted to start 125-plus games this season, and he added to that number on Thursday.
“I want to stay healthy, I want to work with my legs and try to be strong mentally to catch 130-135 games,” he said. “That’s the point right now.”
Will the Nationals actually let Ramos carry that kind of workload, even if he keeps himself in tip-top shape? Rizzo seemed to suggest the answer is no.
“If you look at the games caught by catchers throughout the league, 10 catchers caught 100 games or more last year,” he said. “So there’s ample opportunity for a good second catcher on a club. Although Wilson is clearly our No. 1 catcher, we certainly want him to be available throughout the whole season. And [Lobaton] is a capable backup in case something does happen with Wilson.”
Rizzo’s facts weren’t entirely accurate: Sixteen major-league catchers started 100 games last season. But only four started 120 or more games: Matt Wieters, Yadier Molina, Salvador Perez and Jonathan Lucroy. So the odds of the Nationals needing to call upon Lobaton at least 40-to-50 times this season appear more than plausible.
Make no mistake: In their perfect world, the Nationals would see Ramos start 120-plus games this season, club 20 homers and establish himself as one of the best catchers in the NL.
But in acquiring Lobaton on Thursday, they made sure they’re covered behind the plate, with a second catcher who can be trusted to take on a significant workload should the situation arise.
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