Avila, who turns 34 on Friday, appeared in 23 games for the Minnesota Twins last year. He has a .184/.328/.349 slash line in the past three seasons, meaning Washington will have an offensive drop-off from Kurt Suzuki. But Avila is a skilled game-caller, grades well in framing analytics and is familiar with the Nationals’ pitching staff. He caught Max Scherzer 107 times with the Detroit Tigers, more than any other catcher in Scherzer’s career, and Patrick Corbin 14 times with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And he even caught Jon Lester twice with the Chicago Cubs.
The Nationals had a hole behind the plate after Suzuki signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels on Jan. 15. Before addressing it, they traded for first baseman Josh Bell, then signed left fielder Kyle Schwarber, Lester and left-handed reliever Brad Hand. Then they landed Avila to cap a busy month.
Once Avila’s deal is official, he’ll join Gomes and Tres Barrera as the three catchers on Washington’s 40-man roster. Welington Castillo and Blake Swihart have signed minor league deals this winter and will be at spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla, while Raudy Read was designated for assignment in October, squeezing him out of the mix. The Nationals typically carry two catchers on their active roster, like most teams, and a total of three or four on the 40-man throughout a given season.
With Avila, the Nationals get a left-handed bat to complement Gomes, who hits from the right side. Avila was a league-average batter in 2019, posting an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .774. But he’s otherwise much more valuable for his glove and experience. He strikes out often and is prone to long slumps. In recent years, and in small sample sizes, his best offensive attribute is a passing ability to get on base.
That’s not uncommon for a backup catcher, who will play sporadically, hit low in the lineup and be trusted to field his position. Avila profiles similarly to veterans Jason Castro, Austin Romine or Tony Wolters, who were some of the other low-cost catchers available this winter. Manager Dave Martinez said last month he wanted Gomes to start between 100 and 110 games this coming season. That would leave Avila with the balance, unless Martinez changes his plan.
The Nationals have added 10 players to their 40-man roster this offseason. Avila will make it 11 upon passing his physical. The list includes Bell, Schwarber, Lester and Hand; veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman; left-handed reliever Sam Clay; Steven Fuentes, Yasel Antuna and Joan Adon, who were all protected from the Rule 5 Draft; and right-handed starter Rogelio Armenteros, who Washington claimed off waivers from the Diamondbacks in December.
This leaves one open 40-man spot with three weeks until the scheduled start of spring training. The Nationals will often keep that open for wiggle room heading toward Opening Day. But should they want to add more — perhaps a reliever, or an infielder for the bench — they could cut a fringe player to clear space. The roster, however, looks just about finished now that Avila is on board.