UPDATE, 11:55 a.m.: The Nationals will also receive two prospects from the Rays in the deal. The names have not yet been released, but both were ranked among Tampa Bay’s top 30 prospects by Baseball America — “not just guys,” one person familiar with the deal said. The Tampa Bay Times reported one of the prospects appears to Felipe Rivero, a 22-year-old left-hander who punched up a 3.40 ERA in 25 games (23 starts) at Class A last season. Baseball America ranked Rivero the Rays’ No. 17 prospect.
One American League scout called the Lobaton-Karns piece of the deal “even.” He saw Karns as a power arm who profiles eventually as a reliever and Lobaton as an experienced, switch-hitting catcher who will provide the Nationals what they need behind Wilson Ramos.
Ramos, incidentally, played with Lobaton in Venezuela, the home country of both players, in the winter of 2010. “Good guy, good teammate,” Ramos said. “Hopefully, he will help the team. That’s what we want. He’s good. He hits well both sides of the plate. He’s got good defense, a good arm. He can call the games. He’s a good catcher, man.”
UPDATE, 11:25 a.m.: Jose Lobaton has been traded from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Nationals for right-handed pitcher Nate Karns, according to a person familiar with the deal who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Lobaton, 29, who spent the past three seasons with the Rays as a backup catcher, was informed of the trade this morning. Lobaton, who lives in the Orlando area, was planning to report to Rays camp in Port Charlotte today but is now headed to Viera and is expected to report by early afternoon.
It is unclear how many players are involved in the deal beyond Lobaton and Karns, but the Nationals are expected to officially announce the deal later today. — James Wagner
UPDATE, 10:00 a.m.: That didn’t take long: General Manager Mike Rizzo informed Nationals right-hander Nate Karns that he has been traded to the Rays. The return will likely include backup catcher Jose Lobaton, but that is not known for certain at this time. We’ll have more later.
ORIGINAL, 9:45 a.m.: As Nationals pitchers and catchers trickled into the clubhouse this morning to officially report for spring training, right-hander Nate Karns had more to think about than most of his teammates. Last night, he found himself part of a trade rumor after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Rays and Nationals were discussing a trade involving him and Rays backup catcher Jose Lobaton.
A person familiar with the talks said no deal had been finalized, but that the teams are discussing a trade. The Nationals, a team official said, have been eyeing Lobaton since at least the winter meetings.
Karns made three starts for the Nationals last season and is considered their ninth-best prospect by Baseball America. The Nationals drafted him in 2009 and rehabbed him after shoulder surgery. In 2012, they named him their minor league pitcher of the year.
Karns was eating dinner with reliever Aaron Barrett last night when he noticed his name pop up. His agent notified him. His mother called to ask, “Is it true?” He replied, “I have no idea.” He has not heard anything from the Nationals, though. Karns had never dealt with anything like it before, and he would prefer to stay with his original team.
“This is the team that signed me,” Karns said. “They fixed me. I made my debut with them. So there’s a lot of history. It would be tough to go, but if I’ve got to go, it’s a new chapter and a new opportunity. So, you just got to look at it from both ends and be fine with whatever happens.”
Lobaton planned to report to Rays camp in Port Charlotte, Fla., today. Like Karns, he is aware he could be dealt but has not heard from his team.
One front office official pointed out that Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman, “likes to bundle” when he trades, attempting to turn small deals into multi-player transactions. Trying to make the trade bigger could slow the process.
The Nationals aimed all offseason to increase their depth behind Wilson Ramos. Their current 40-man roster includes only untested, homegrown catchers Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. Solano hit .214 at Class AAA last year, and Leon hit .177 in Class AA.
The Nationals have also signed veterans Chris Snyder and Koyie Hill to minor league contracts with invites to spring training, but neither has provided impact in recent seasons. Snyder played nine games in the majors last year; Hill played 18.
Lobaton, 29, has appeared in 191 games over parts of four major league seasons, the last three with the Rays. Lobaton has nine career homers and a .228 batting average. He will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. Last year, in his best season, Lobaton hit .249/.320/.394 with seven homers in 100 games. He is perhaps best known for the walk-off home run he hit off Koji Uehara into a center-field fish tank during last year’s American League Division Series.
A 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander, Karns made his major league debut last season, allowing 10 earned runs in 12 innings over three starts. He throws a mid-90s fastball that can reach 97 miles per hour, but his off-speed pitches lacked polish as a rookie and allowed five homers in his brief big league stint.
If Karns remains with the Nationals, he will enter spring as a candidate for the fifth starter spot, next to Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark.
“As far as I know, I’m still a Nat,” Karns said. “I’m here to compete, and I’m ready to get after it for this year.”