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The Nationals could use an upgrade at catcher. Is J.T. Realmuto the answer?

J.T. Realmuto reportedly wants out of Miami. (Rich Schultz/Associated Press)

On Monday, word trickled out that Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, to the surprise of just about nobody, is unhappy with his franchise’s latest housecleaning and has formally requested a trade. With Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon already out the door, Realmuto and center fielder Christian Yelich, two of the best two-way talents across baseball at their positions, are the only pieces remaining from a stout offensive core sabotaged by a mediocre pitching staff. Yelich is also frustrated but is reportedly meeting with Marlins officials this week before deciding whether to request a trade. Realmuto didn’t wait.

The Marlins don’t have to succumb to Realmuto’s wishes. He is under team control for the next three years at what will be cheaper-than-market-value prices thanks to baseball’s arbitration system. In other words, he has no leverage and is the kind of building block the Marlins’ new ownership group, which is prioritizing cutting payroll, could use. On the other hand, if the Marlins put him on the market, they could reap a significant haul to replenish a barren farm system. One talent evaluator said Realmuto would fetch at least a premier prospect and two lesser talents.

Realmuto batted .278 with 17 home runs and a .783 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while posting 3.6 FanGraphs WAR — third-most among catchers across baseball — in 2017. He is a top-10 offensive catcher with a high-contact profile. He boasts above-average speed (and not just for a catcher). He possesses an above-average arm, and is considered a good framer and blocker behind the plate. Add his durability — he was one of four catchers with at least 500 plate appearances in 2017 and is one of three with at least 1,100 the past two years — to his contract and, well, teams will line up for him. Most contenders appear set at catcher, but a talent evaluator said he could see one ditching its plan and acquiring Realmuto anyway because catchers entering their age-27 seasons with his well-rounded skill set are rarely attainable.

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There’s at least one contender that could use an upgrade at catcher: The Nationals. Matt Wieters exercised his $10.5 million player option, so he is Washington’s projected starting catcher. But while he is lauded for his intangibles, Wieters was, statistically, the worst everyday catcher in baseball last season. He was the only gaping hole in a deep lineup (when it was complete), slashing .225/.288/.344. With Jose Lobaton as the primary backup, Nationals catchers were the fifth-worst team positional group across the majors according to the FanGraphs calculation of Wins Above Replacement. It won’t take much for an improvement.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has said he expects a bounce-back season for Wieters and that he is content with Pedro Severino stepping into Lobaton’s role. Yet the team has expressed interest in at least one free agent catcher — Alex Avila — which suggests Severino may not be the answer. Regardless, Wieters will be on the roster and, to maximize his production, Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez have said Wieters will play fewer than the 123 games he logged last season, perhaps somewhere in the 90-to-100 range.

Over the weekend, Wieters was asked at the team’s Winterfest gathering for his opinion on his bosses’ plan for him. It went something like this: That’s cool, but I actually was thinking the opposite.

“I’m trying to go the other way where I’m trying to get in better shape and even better to where I can catch more,” he said. “I like being behind the plate. It’s tough for me going into the season where 120, 130 isn’t the goal for me.”

To prepare for a heavier workload, Wieters said he started his offseason workout regimen earlier than ever and has cleaned up his eating habits. He said the diet change isn’t extreme; he’s not going vegan or avoiding gluten. But he’s pickier in seeking out “good calories.” Weight loss isn’t the lone objective — he said it’s also simply about feeling better — but he wants to drop to 225 pounds after playing at 235 for the past few years. The adjustment was noticeable to at least one person: When Martinez saw him Saturday, he told the 31-year-old Wieters that he looked 10 years younger.

“I don’t know about 10 years,” Wieters said, “but I do feel a little younger.”

But Wieters isn’t the future behind the plate for the Nationals. Perhaps it’s Severino or Raudy Read, who didn’t have trouble squaring balls up during his short major league stint in September. It could be Realmuto if Washington pays the price. In some ways, Realmuto is similar to Adam Eaton a year ago. Like Realmuto, Eaton filled a position of need for the Nationals, was under team control for a few years for a squad that wasn’t going to win anytime soon, and was in the prime of his career. Washington wound up acquiring him for three top pitching prospects last December. The consensus was it was a huge overpay, but the Nationals got what they covet: a cheap, controllable asset at a premium position.

So what would the Nationals be willing to surrender this time? Would they center a trade package around Juan Soto, their No. 2 prospect? Soto, 19, is prized for his exceptional hitting ability, but he’s only played in 83 games in the minors because of injuries last season. Would Soto and a couple of others even be enough? (This is all assuming the Nationals aren’t willing to move top prospect Victor Robles.)

The Nationals will surely contact the Marlins. It would be irresponsible not to. In Realmuto, they would have an upgrade for 2018 and a core piece for whatever lies after the Bryce Harper sweepstakes — but that’s only possible if the Marlins cede to Realmuto.

Read more on the Nationals:

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‘It’s part of the business’: Nats players offer thoughts on Dusty Baker’s dismissal

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