Nationals positional review, Part 3: Catchers


Wilson Ramos (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Each weekday, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals’ positional groups. In Part 3 of 5, we look at the outfielders. In previous installments, we looked at the infield and the outfield.

2013 SEASON REVIEW

One of the biggest questions entering the Nationals’ 2013 season was the durability of Wilson Ramos’s right knee. The catcher missed most of the 2012 season after requiring surgeries to repair his torn MCL and damaged ACL. The Nationals planned to ease him into action slowly, relying heavily on Kurt Suzuki, who performed well after he was acquired in an August 2012 trade from the Oakland Athletics. The Nationals were willing to pay Suzuki’s $6.45 million 2013 salary in order to have reliable insurance for Ramos’s recovery.

Ramos showed early in spring training that he was ready after an arduous rehab, training and slimming down. His progress impressed the Nationals and he was rewarded by Davey Johnson with the starting nod on opening day. Early in the season, Johnson alternated daily between Suzuki and Ramos, and it worked despite the fact that both catchers were capable of playing every day. The plan lasted only two weeks.

Ramos suffered his first hamstring strain on April 13 and missed two weeks. He returned on April 30 and lasted only two weeks before his hamstring gave out again. This time, he missed 44 games. Suzuki carried the everyday load but slumped under the strain. He started 36 of those games and hit .214 with a .530 OPS in that span.

When Ramos returned on July 4, he made an immediate impact at the plate. He drove in five runs that first game and didn’t look back. Over the next 64 games to close the season, he hit .276/.307/.477 with a .784 OPS. He smashed 14 homers — one every 17 at-bats — and drove in 53 runs. The Nationals’ offense got healthy and heated up as a whole, but Ramos’s return certainly helped. The Nationals went 39-25 after he returned. Behind the plate, he made a difference, too; pitchers posted a 3.26 ERA when he was catching compared to the 3.95 ERA with Suzuki.

When Ramos was in the starting lineup, the Nationals were 48-29. When he wasn’t, they went 38-47. Ramos finished with a .272/.307/.470 slash line and his 15 home runs set a Nationals mark for most for a catcher in a single season. With Ramos, the Nationals were a better team.

During the final three months of the season, Ramos also proved he was durable. At one point, he started 23 straight games, the longest such stretch among catchers in the majors this season. As a result, the Nationals found Suzuki expendable and shipped him off to the Athletics on Aug. 22. The Nationals were also confident in the work of Jhonatan Solano, calling on him to serve as Ramos’s primary backup. In limited action, Solano hit .146 with two RBI in 50 plate appearances.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

The most obvious, lingering concern is the durability of Ramos. He wanted to prove to the Nationals after his July return that he could play everyday and that he was past his injuries. He did. Ramos learned not to push himself too hard when running in the final months of the season, but he admitted still feeling scared when he ran. He vowed to work with a physical trainer in the offseason to work on his leg strength and flexibility so that he could run without any hesitation next season.

Ramos has never played more than 113 games in a season, and he last did that in 2011 in his first season with the Nationals. Including the 78 games he played this season, Ramos has played in only 101 of a possible 321 games since the start of 2012. The team believes that Ramos, who is heading into his first season of arbitration eligibility, is their cornerstone catcher for years. He just needs to continue to learn to manage his body and style of play so that he can stay on the field more often that he has.

(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

As insurance, the Nationals showed faith in 28-year-old Solano as the team’s backup catcher. Solano posted better hitting numbers in 2012, also in limited playing time, but one Nationals evaluator spoke highly of Solano’s ability. The few times Ramos took days off during the final months of the season, Solano stepped in and still called a good game behind the plate, and hit the ball hard a few times, according to the evaluator — all difficult tasks to perform with so little regular playing time.

Solano is a homegrown player, signed out of his native Colombia in 2005, so he is familiar with the Nationals pitchers. He hit .217 in 140 at-bats over 40 games with Class AAA Syracuse and was charged with only one error and two passed balls. The Nationals could always pursue a more veteran catcher on the free agent mark this offseason, but they have maintained a strong belief in the quality of their catching depth.

Another point of improvement entering spring training will be the Nationals’ inability to limit or cut down base runners. In 2013, the Nationals were last in the majors in caught stealing percentage. Opponents successfully stole bases 83 percent of the time. In 2012, the Nationals were second to last, also with a stolen base success rate of 83 percent. Both Ramos and Solano have strong arms, and the blame rests mostly on the team’s pitching staff.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

An organization can never have enough good back-up catchers so the Nationals may try and add depth with smaller contracts or minor league deals. The Nationals appear comfortable starting the season with Solano as Ramos’s primary backup, but there are some options in the free agent market if they decide to fill the backup spot that way. John Buck, Dioner Navarro, Ramon Hernandez or Yorvit Torrealba are among the many veteran free agent catchers who could serve as backups. Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the top catcher in this winter’s free agent class and are likely to command large, multi-year deals.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

While Sandy Leon sits higher on the catching depth chart in the system, Adrian Nieto is an intriguing name to keep an eye on. After hitting .322 last season, including a stint at Class AAA Syracuse, Leon struggled immensely with his hitting this season at Class AA Harrisburg. He hit .177 in 95 games with Harrisburg, attributing his struggles to season-long anxiousness. But behind him on the depth chart could soon be Nieto.

Nieto, 23, posted a slash line of .285/.373/.449 with 11 homers, 29 doubles and 53 RBI in 110 games with Class A Potomac. Nationals officials speak highly of  the 23-year-old catcher’s hitting ability. He will play in the Arizona Fall League this winter and could likely be at Harrisburg next season. The 6-foot, 200-pound catcher was drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 draft out of high school in south Florida.

Coming tomorrow: The rotation.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.

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Adam Kilgore · October 2, 2013

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