The Washington Nationals' signing of catcher Kurt Suzuki did not necessarily clear up the team’s situation behind the plate.
If anything, the move made it more complicated, at least for the time being. The Nationals may see Suzuki as the “front-line” starter they have been seeking at the position, one who can catch more than 100 games and soften the need for an alternative option. Or they could view him as a platoon player best paired with a catcher of a similar caliber and price tag available on the free agent market. Or, though it seems less probable now, they have tabbed Suzuki as a top-rate backup and will make a push for a premier catcher such as the Miami Marlins' J.T. Realmuto.
The Nationals have expressed high interest in Realmuto in the past, but any trade for him would need to include several of their best prospects. So it seems more likely, at least at the moment, with the offseason only beginning to heat up, that the Nationals will give Suzuki a starter’s workload in 2019. He hit .271 with 12 home runs and 50 RBI in 93 starts for the Atlanta Braves last season and has improved at the plate in the back half of his career. The Nationals will pay him $10 million across the next two seasons. On a conference call with reporters last week, Suzuki said that General Manager Mike Rizzo told Suzuki and his agent that he would be “the guy.”
That could be interpreted in a lot of ways, and even Suzuki hedged by saying he is unsure if he will play 60, 80, 100 or 120 games. But if Suzuki is the intended starter, and the Nationals are finished shopping at the position for the winter, they already have two players to possibly slot behind him. Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino got a chance to prove themselves as the organization’s backup catcher last year. They could compete for that spot once spring rolls around.
“It’s not something you can think too much about, because if you do, you could really go crazy,” Kieboom said in late September, when it was clear that veteran Matt Wieters may not return and the Nationals would have a hole, or two, to fill at catcher this offseason. “If they want you to start, or be the backup, or be the experienced guy working with pitchers in the minors, whatever, you need to come and play the same way. It’s not my job to figure out how I fit within the organization in the future. It’s just my job to play.”
“This season, I think I showed the coaches and the front office what I can do and I just need to get better at it,” he continued. “Working with pitchers, being solid defensively, putting the ball in play, this coming offseason I want to build on all of that.”
Severino started the 2018 season as Wieters’s backup and would seem to have the inside track to do the same for Suzuki in 2019. He is 25 and already played in parts of four major league seasons — though that amounted to just four plate appearances in 2015 — and the Nationals have appeared more invested in his development than Kieboom’s. But Severino has not found a rhythm at the plate since hitting .321 in 16 games in 2016, and Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was lightly critical of his handling of the pitching staff last season.
That all led Kieboom to leap over Severino in the backup spot once Wieters returned from injury in early July. Kieboom got his first extended opportunity because of Wieters’s left hamstring strain and was mostly Severino’s backup at the start of the summer. Then the Nationals sent Severino down to Class AAA Syracuse and kept Kieboom as their second option. Kieboom earned sound reviews from the Nationals' pitching staff and proved to be a good manager of the base paths with a strong arm, quick pop time and a rare ability to throw out runners from his knees. He even flashed a bit of power by homering twice in three games in September and otherwise compiled a .232 average and 13 RBI in 143 plate appearances.
The offensive advantage, should these two go head-to-head for a roster spot, is believed to side with Severino. But he hit .168 and had a .254 on-base percentage — with 47 strikeouts weighing against 18 walks — in 213 scattered plate appearances in 2018. Severino is also out of options, meaning he cannot be sent down to the minors next season without being placed on waivers. The Nationals would then risk losing him to another team for no return. Kieboom does have options left and can still be moved between the majors and minors without any consequences.
“I have talked to Davey [Martinez] a lot about just simplifying things at the plate,” Severino said in late September. “I was probably trying to do too much at the start of this year, trying to swing too hard, hit a home run when I should have been looking to make contact, get on base.”
The Nationals still have confidence in catcher Raudy Read, the 25-year-old prospect who was suspended for 80 games last season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Read played in just 53 minor league games last season, with Syracuse and Class AA Harrisburg, and will need to play himself back into the mix after missing an extended period. If the Nationals believe the short-term solution at backup catcher is in the organization, it will be one of Kieboom or Severino.
In September, as the Nationals angled toward an 82-80 finish that kept them out of the playoffs, Severino joined the 40-man roster and Wieters bounced in and out of the lineup with aches in his hip and hamstring. Both Severino and Kieboom got a chance to see more pitches, at and behind the plate, and the Nationals got a few final looks before mapping out their offseason plans. Neither player separated himself as a clear second option moving forward, but they soon could get another opportunity.
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