WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Yan Gomes was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Washington Nationals on the last night of November, he had new pitchers to text, scouting reports to compile and statistics to sift through.
That’s what happens when a catcher changes teams. It’s his job to know each of his hurlers, inside and out. For Gomes, that process started with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Sean Doolittle. Then the Nationals signed Patrick Corbin a few days later and Anibal Sanchez a few weeks after that, and they rounded out their rotation by bringing back Jeremy Hellickson this month.
But how Gomes would work with his pitchers was not the only question of his offseason. The Nationals had signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki the week before they acquired Gomes, so it was fair to wonder how they planned to use their two backstops, each of whom could be the top option for many teams.
Gomes, he now insists, wasn’t thinking about that.
“Let me just get that out: The playing time we have kind of has been . . . it’s going around and talked about. But that’s just something that, if we make that a deal, this team is not going to go forward,” Gomes said Saturday at spring training. “I just think we need to both be ready whenever our names get called. That’s two guys that have done it with some good pitching staffs, and it’s only going to benefit [the team]. But if we put the playing time thing ahead of ourselves, it’s not going to be beneficial for the team.”
Gomes, 31, was an all-star last season, posting a .762 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 16 home runs in 112 games, making 105 starts as the Indians’ catcher. Suzuki, 35, had an OPS of .776 in 105 games with the Atlanta Braves, registering 83 starts behind the plate. Both were above-average major league hitters — making them well above average for catchers — and this season they will sacrifice at-bats that they probably could have gotten elsewhere.
Even if the Nationals slightly favor Gomes, something the team has not indicated, it does not seem likely that he makes more than 100 starts with Suzuki on the team. A 50-50 split would be hard to engineer, given needed off days, matchups and whom pitchers prefer to throw to, but Manager Dave Martinez has hinted that it could be close. Gomes said he is fine with that. Suzuki echoed his new teammate’s thoughts Saturday.
“Oh, I don’t even care. At this point in my career, picking a team that has a chance to win a World Series is very important to me,” he said. “And like I told [General Manager Mike Rizzo] and Davey from Day 1: ‘Whatever you need me to do, I’ll be ready, whether it’s 50 games, 60, whatever. However many games you want me to catch.’ If I can help the team win every time I’m out there, that’s great. I just want to win at this point in my career. I know the clock’s ticking a little bit. I’m not getting younger. That World Series is getting to be pretty important right now.”
While Gomes did not directly tie his motivations to the World Series, he has expressed excitement for joining a competitive team in perpetual “win-now” mode. He did not choose the Nationals, who dealt pitcher Jefry Rodriguez and minor league outfielder Daniel Johnson to land him. But the Nationals chose him, even after locking up Suzuki for two seasons, and he seems happy with the move nonetheless.
The Nationals’ projected starting rotation features three pitchers who could be the ace for a handful of teams, Sanchez’s six-pitch arsenal and a steady, veteran arm in Hellickson. Gomes and Suzuki have been meeting with pitchers and having lengthy conversations about sequences, preferences and pitch movement after bullpen sessions. The Nationals’ investment in two proven catchers makes even more sense when considering the roughly $96 million they’ll spend on their starting staff in 2019.
“You try not to mess it up,” Gomes said, laughing, of working with these pitchers. “These guys are good enough that they have established themselves, and you’re just trying to help them get through on that.”
Gomes is a heralded pitch framer who can help pitchers get better, not just “get through.” Suzuki’s 12 MLB seasons, including the past two with the NL East rival Braves, make him qualified to help a veteran staff. Suzuki helped Sanchez revive his career last season, and the 34-year-old righty had a 2.82 ERA in his 16 starts caught by Suzuki. That makes it likely Suzuki catches the bulk of Sanchez’s starts this season, but it might not be that simple.
Martinez does not plan to follow the convention that a team’s backup catcher cannot pinch-hit. The theory is that if a manager pinch-hits his reserve catcher and then the starter gets hurt, he is left to use a position player behind the plate. That rarely happens, Martinez noted, and that kind of thinking could help him take advantage of his catching tandem’s offensive potential.
The Nationals got 12 home runs from their catchers last year. Gomes and Suzuki combined for 28, albeit in more starts than a 162-game schedule allows, so an increase in production and power should be expected. Maximizing it will take creativity on their manager’s part.
“Their value to our team is incredible, especially with our starting pitching,” Martinez said. “They’re both going to play a lot. They understand that. How we work it? We’ll figure it out.”
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