The Washington Nationals acquired a new starting catcher Friday afternoon for their stretch run, adding Kurt Suzuki of the Oakland Athletics for minor league catcher David Freitas. Suzuki, who passed through waivers for the trade to happen, will take over for Jesus Flores as the Nationals’ primary backstop and brings with him a reputation as one of baseball’s best defensive catchers.
General Manager Mike Rizzo made the deal with not only the pennant race in mind, but also next season. Suzuki, 28 and in his sixth major league season, is under contract through 2013, with a vesting option for 2014. Rizzo envisions pairing Suzuki with Wilson Ramos next year, assuming Ramos returns from his torn knee ligament for spring training, as expected.
Manager Davey Johnson described Suzuki as a “No. 1 catcher.” Suzuki will likely arrive in Washington in time for the Nationals’ game Saturday night against the Marlins.
The Nationals kicked the tires on several catchers before Tuesday’s trade deadline, all of them under contract beyond this season, in the hopes of adding experience and improving their defense behind the plate. The talks with Oakland started about a week before July 31 but could not be consummated until Friday.
“He’s not a rental,” Rizzo said. “He’s going to be here for more than this season. He’s a guy that can really take that rotation together and get it going even better than it already is. . . . We got a guy who’s been in the Gold Glove conversation each year he’s been a major leaguer.”
The A’s sent money to the Nationals to help pay Suzuki’s contract. Suzuki will make about $1.66 million for the remainder of this season. Next year, Suzuki will make $6.45 million. If he starts at least 113 games in 2013, his $9.25 million option for 2014 will vest.
The Athletics drafted Suzuki in the second round in 2004. He attended Cal State Fullerton, where Rizzo scouted him. Over the past three seasons, Suzuki hit .252 with a .698 OPS, averaging 14 home runs. He is having his worst offensive season, batting .218, which Rizzo attributed to Suzuki splitting time more often than in the past.
Despite the down offensive year, Suzuki has been heating up lately. He has slugged .472 since July began. But the Nationals acquired him foremost for his defensive ability.
Flores, 27, will likely remain the Nationals’ backup. Johnson called backup Sandy Leon “the logical guy” to be optioned to the minor leagues. Flores has struggled this year. He has thrown out 5 of 48 base stealers, a failure largely owing to Nationals pitchers’ inability to hold runners. Offensively, Flores has slumped to a .225 batting average.
“I think Flo probably is his own worst enemy,” Johnson said. “He’s not doing the things he knows he’s capable of doing. We’ll see how that plays out.”
Flores is eligible for arbitration this winter. With Suzuki and Ramos ahead of him, and Leon and Jhonatan Solano still present, Flores’s future with the organization beyond this year appears to be in question.
Johnson managed Suzuki for Team USA in a 2007 tournament. “He’ll add a little veteran presence to our catching corps,” Johnson said. “He’s a smart kid.”
The Nationals traded one of their top 15 prospects in Freitas, a 2010 15th-round draft pick from Hawaii. Freitas, a thick-bodied 23-year-old, was hitting .271 at Class A Potomac. His advanced offensive approach led him to a .398 on-base percentage in 1,098 career plate appearances.
The Nationals designated veteran catcher Carlos Maldonado for assignment to make room for Suzuki on their 40-man roster.