Nationals positional review, Part 3: Catcher

October 17, 2012

John McDonnell / The Washington Post

Each day this week, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals’ positional group. In Part 3 of 5 today, we’ll look at the catchers. Previously, we studied the infield and outfield.

2012 SEASON REVIEW

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Nationals catchers. The Nationals cycled through catchers this year like Spinal Tap went through drummers. Wilson Ramos, Jesus Flores, Sandy Leon, Carlos Maldonado, Jhonatan Solano and Kurt Suzuki all saw time for the Nationals, and all of them except Suzuki landed on the disabled list at least once.

The most devastating injury struck Ramos, the player who least deserved the harsh luck. He endured a harrowing kidnapping ordeal in his native Venezuela over the offseason. On May 12 in Cincinnati, his season ended when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament chasing a passed ball. 

Ramos remains the Nationals’ catcher of the future. During his time as the Nationals’ everyday catcher this year, he regressed defensively, especially on plays that required him to catch relay throws and make a quick tag. Oddly, he kept dropping the ball. At the plate, Ramos hit .265/.354/.398 with three homers in 98 plate appearances.

Flores became the regular catcher when Ramos went down, but regular playing time seemed to expose him as a hitter. Other teams stole on Flores at will, which had more to do with the Nationals’ pitching staff than the men behind the plate. The Nationals leaned on him hard, which may have contributed to him hitting .225 with a .593 OPS in the 54 games he played between Ramos’s injury and the Nationals acquisition of Suzuki.

When healthy, both Leon and Solano proved why the Nationals regard both of them as future major leaguers. Solano ripped line drives to all fields, and Leon was a steady receiver behind the plate. But the Nationals did not find a proper solution at catcher before they traded for Suzuki in early August. Leon suffered a high-ankle sprain four innings into his major league debut.

Down the stretch, few Nationals hitters took better at-bats than Suzuki. He proved his poor offensive performance in Oakland was a byproduct of playing through injuries. Suzuki, 29, formed a strong rapport with the pitching staff and his cheerful personality fit into the Nationals’ clubhouse well. In the season’s final month, Suzuki hit .300/.356/.500. Even if Ramos returns fully healthy, Suzuki should push him for the brunt of the playing time.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

The Nationals expect Ramos to heal fully before the start of spring training. Ramos had already lost about 10 pounds by the end of the season, the one silver lining from his injury. He carried a lot of weight on his big frame, and dropping some pounds as he rehabs could help his long-term durability behind the plate.

The Nationals owe Suzuki $6.45 million for the 2013 season, which they are more than happy to pay him. The Nationals need a quality backstop to pair with Ramos as he returns from the serious injury, and insurance in case Ramos cannot return to full strength in time for the season. When the Nationals traded for Suzuki, they had both the home stretch and 2013 in mind. 

Flores, who is eligible for arbitration, appears to be on his way out. The Nationals will almost certainly not tender Flores a contract, cutting ties with a player who has been in their organization since they chose him from the Mets in the 2006 Rule 5 draft. Flores was once one of the Nationals’ most promising young players, but ever since a foul tip in 2009 led to a torn labrum, he hasn’t been the same.

Leon and Solano figure to start the season in the minors as depth. The Nationals hope they will not need to dip into their farm system for catching help as often as they did this season.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

With Ramos coming back and Suzuki in the fold, the Nationals have zero need to shop for a catcher this off-season.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

The Nationals valued Leon for his defense entering last season, but this year he became an offensive force in the minor leagues. He spent a good chunk of the season either on the disabled list or backing up in the majors. When he played, he hit .322/.396/.460 in 202 minor league at-bats. He drew 24 walks and struck out 30 times, a strong sign of his advanced. Leon may have no apparent place to go with Ramos and Suzuki in the fold, but at 23 he appears to be the Nationals’ best catching prospect.

Coming tomorrow: Rotation

 

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