The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Finding a starting catcher ranks high on the Nationals' list of priorities

Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto and a Nationals logo — the plot thickens. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Mike Rizzo doesn’t often indulge specific questions about his roster’s shortcomings, at least not with specific answers.

Ask whether he needs more starting pitching, and he’ll say you can never have enough. Ask whether he has a need at any particular position, and he’ll say he never stops looking for upgrades at all of them.

If the Nationals' general manager admits to a problem, he insults the players he has. If he admits to a need, he diminishes his leverage with those negotiating to help him meet it. Consistent opacity hurts only those in search of quick answers.

But when asked about Washington’s catching needs last week, Rizzo provided detail and candor.

“We’re looking for a front-line catcher,” Rizzo said, envisioning a player who can start 120 games or so and produce offensively.

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That catcher does not appear to be in the system. For all the effort and enthusiasm provided by Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom, neither flashed the kind of consistent offensive abilities that one looks for in a big league starter. Raudy Read, who was pushing through the minors before being suspended for performance-enhancing drug use last year, lost almost a season of development. Any of the three could emerge as a quality backup option, but all three must improve to do so. The Nationals could be in the market for a backup catcher, too.

“If you have one all-star catcher, I think you’re pretty set there. But catcher is a rough position. You’re a foul tip away from needing another guy,” Rizzo said. “So if you get yourself what we’d call a front-line catcher, then I think you can go with one of your young guys [as a second catcher].”

For the purposes of these musings, let’s define “front-line” as a top 10 catcher in terms of wins above replacement. Four of those “front-line” catchers are at least potentially available this winter: J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos and . . . Kurt Suzuki?

Realmuto is baseball’s top catcher measured by WAR, and the Marlins have entertained offers for their star for a year or so now. The Nationals have made several of those offers, but none were good enough to pry him out of Miami’s control. So far, the Marlins' requests centered on Juan Soto and Victor Robles, according to people familiar with the talks. The Nationals have not been willing to part with either player.

“It’s a good match [with Realmuto]. But you have to balance what you’re giving up to what you’re getting,” Rizzo said. “As we’ve talked about before, Robles is a tough guy to move in any deal, and so is Soto. So we’re not going to do that. But we’ve got a deep farm system and some major league assets, and with Realmuto or any other trade that we make, we think we match up well with a lot of teams.”

The league’s second-best catcher, as measured by WAR, is also available. The Dodgers' Grandal received a qualifying offer but has yet to decline or accept it. If he does not take it, the Nationals would lose a draft pick to sign him. The marginal gains provided by Grandal might not seem worth the loss of a potential future asset.

Ramos, however, could be of interest. The Nationals are not opposed to a reunion and think highly of Ramos’s offensive abilities. But they also are familiar with his lengthy injury history — and the unfavorable aging curve for catchers of his size — both of which could affect their willingness to commit money and/or years.

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Suzuki, another former National, also is a free agent. Suzuki finished 10th among catchers in FanGraphs WAR for the Braves and produced an on-base-plus-slugging percentage 170 points higher than Nationals catchers did in 2018. But he has not been an everyday catcher in some time and would likely need to be handled as a part of a platoon with another veteran catcher.

A less familiar option could be veteran Jonathan Lucroy, who endured a disappointing offensive year with Oakland in which his power dropped dramatically. Lucroy is a well-regarded clubhouse presence, caught 126 games last year and would come as a good, low-cost, bounce-back bet.

Lucroy has experience at first base, as does Realmuto, and that could matter. When considering off-the-radar options for the Nationals behind the plate, consider this unexpected tidbit offered up by Rizzo while speaking to reporters at the general managers' meetings last week.

“I like some of the catchers that can play first base on their day off,” Rizzo said. “But that would mean you’re an offensive kind of catcher that we’d want you out there."

Specifics like those are rarities from Rizzo, who would rather not box himself in and never wants to limit his options. But he is willing to admit a clear target for this offseason, one that could cost the Nationals a great deal to hit. Rizzo wants a front-line catcher, and he has ideas of where to get it.

Read more on the Nationals:

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