Kurt Suzuki played 105 games for the Atlanta Braves in 2018, far more than a normal backup catcher would play, but fewer than a healthy full-time starter. When Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo talked about his team’s catching needs earlier this month, he indicated the need for a starting catcher who would play 120 games or so, then maybe start a few more at first base now and then. Suzuki is not exactly that player he envisioned. The Nationals might still need help behind the plate.
If they start the season with Suzuki alone, the Nationals could still plan for more offensive production from their catchers than what they received last season. Among catchers who have made at least 600 plate appearances since the start of 2017, no one has a higher OPS than Suzuki’s .825 — not Buster Posey (.808), not Wilson Ramos (.803) and not J.T. Realmuto (.803). Suzuki hit the same number of home runs as Chicago Cubs star Willson Contreras (31) in that time. He played more games than Ramos in that span, too. In short, Suzuki’s recent offensive production competes with the best offensive catchers in baseball. But he has not carried a starter’s workload since 2015.
So the Nationals could stick with Suzuki as their starter, rely on Pedro Severino or Spencer Kieboom as a backup, and still be better off from that position offensively than they were last year. But they seem unlikely to settle on Suzuki as the full-time solution. Instead, he seems to better fit some kind of modified platoon — one perhaps based less on left-right splits and more on maintaining the health of both players involved.
“[Rizzo] told my agent from day one that I’m their guy,” Suzuki said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Whether I’m a guy that catches 120 games or 90 games, or whatever they want me to do, I just told them I will be ready to do whatever you want. And he said I am going to play, obviously. I just said, ‘Whatever you need me to do.’ So whether that’s 80, 90, 100, 120, it really doesn’t matter to me.”
Rizzo and his staff still value Wilson Ramos for his offensive abilities, but have major concerns about his durability. On a roster that also includes Suzuki, however, Ramos’s durability no longer feels quite so concerning. If he is healthy, the Nationals could keep him that way by spelling him regularly without much drop-off in production. If he isn’t, Suzuki can carry the load.
The same would be true of any similar catchers who bring strengths with real concerns. Another example: The Nationals respect Jonathan Lucroy for the intangibles and his clubhouse presence, and though he had a down offensive season in 2018, he might be a low-cost gamble for a rebound. Betting on a bounce-back season is easier when Suzuki is already on the roster. If that better season doesn’t materialize, the Nationals have a backup plan.
And that backup plan is cheap enough that it would not necessarily preclude the Nationals from making a bigger move. They will pay Suzuki $4 million in 2019 and $6 million in 2020 — less than they paid Matt Wieters annually during his two years with the team. Rizzo and his staff can still afford to pursue a more heralded free agent catcher — or, say, an all-star on the trade market — if they see an opportunity.
Signing Suzuki also does not necessarily end the Nationals' pursuit of the Miami Marlins' J.T. Realmuto. It does, however, end their desperation. Suzuki is still a relatively short-term solution, and the Nationals system shows no signs of spitting out a regular catcher by the end of his contract in 2020. If the Marlins' asking price for Realmuto drops to more palatable levels, the Nationals would be better equipped to protect their investment by spelling him with Suzuki, who would allow Realmuto to play first or rest more often than he might with a more traditional backup.
As of recently, the Nationals still felt the Marlins were asking for an exorbitant return for Realmuto. Perhaps that will not change, and they do not seem to be counting on a deal coming together. If a deal does materialize, the Nationals remain flexible enough to pounce. If it doesn’t, they are well-positioned to pursue catching talent on the free agent market — and are all but guaranteed to get more production from their catchers next season, regardless of who joins Suzuki on the roster. Wieters, Severino and Kieboom combined for 12 home runs and 58 RBI in 627 plate appearances last season. Suzuki, in his 12th major league season, finished with 12 home runs and 50 RBI in just 388 plate appearances.
“Honestly, I have no idea, just being honest,” Suzuki said of how he’s been able to increase offensive production in the back half of his career. “Obviously, I started my career off doing pretty well and then kind of hit a little slump. And then the last two years at age 33 and 34, kind of had like a renaissance I guess. And I really haven’t changed much. I go out there and I don’t really think about launch angle and all these analytical things. I go out there and I just try to do some damage.”
Suzuki was offered a deal to stay in Atlanta, he noted Tuesday, but wanted to see what his value would be in the free agent market. That landed him with a club he believes could compete for a World Series — an extra important incentive for a veteran who has never made it past the first round of the playoffs — and he did not make it seem like he was guaranteed a full-time starting role during negotiations with the Nationals. He was simply offered a chance to contribute, whatever that looks like once the 2019 roster takes shape, and feels he could shoulder a heavy load or produce in a more limited role.
That’s all he wanted, and all he needed to hear.
“I think at this point of my career, I got no ego. I’ve never had an ego,” Suzuki said. “It was just the point where [Rizzo] said I’m their guy, whether I’m a guy that’s going to catch 50 games or I’m a guy that’s going to catch 120 games. He made it clear that he is going to bring me in to help the team win. And that’s the bottom line.”