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Nationals, facing a possible catcher shortage, sign Jonathan Lucroy

Jonathan Lucroy, a two-time all-star, was in spring training with the Chicago White Sox this season. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

The Washington Nationals did not expect to be seeking a veteran catcher in the first days of April. Nor did they expect to be sidelined by a potential coronavirus outbreak that has already led to the postponement of their opening series with the New York Mets this weekend.

But that’s why the Nationals agreed to a minor league contract with catcher Jonathan Lucroy on Saturday night, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Lucroy, 34, played in just one game for the Boston Red Sox in 2020, catching two innings without a plate appearance.

He spent spring training with the Chicago White Sox. He last caught with any consistency during stints with the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs in 2019. And well before that, and for the bulk of his career, he spent seven seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and made two all-star teams.

Yet his contract with the Nationals is entirely circumstantial. It indicates that one or both of Yan Gomes and Alex Avila could be unavailable whenever the team returns to action. Lucroy, whose signing was first reported by FanSided, provides a veteran stopgap — even if it’s just for a handful of contests. The Nationals have four players who tested positive for the coronavirus this week. Five others are in quarantine after being deemed a close contact to an infected person.

A current roster rule would allow the Nationals to add Lucroy and then cut him loose with little consequence. Typically, a player needs a 40-man roster spot to be activated. But in 2021 teams can carry a player who is not on the 40-man roster if that player is replacing someone on the covid-19 injured list. Players are eligible for that list if they have tested positive or are in mandatory quarantine.

Per MLB’s coronavirus protocols, players who test positive have to isolate for a minimum of 10 days. Players quarantining as close contacts have to quarantine for a minimum of seven days. D.C. regulations could lengthen each of those periods. The Nationals, then, could be without a group of regulars for a short while, depending on when they are cleared to play.

On Wednesday night, the team notified catcher Tres Barrera that he was being added to the Opening Day roster, according to two people with knowledge of the move. That was shortly after the Nationals put players in quarantine following contact tracing related to their first positive coronavirus test. The roster was never released because the game was postponed by late Thursday morning. But that Barrera was called upon showed a hole behind the plate.

Gomes, 33, is slated to be the everyday catcher. Avila, 34, signed a one-year deal in January to be his backup. Gomes, Avila and Barrera are the only catchers on the 40-man roster. Barrera, 26, has just two career plate appearances and was suspended for 2020 after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Lucroy had six hits and five walks in 14 exhibitions with the White Sox this spring.

The Nationals are hoping to start their schedule against the Atlanta Braves at 4:05 p.m. Monday. Whether they will is still up in the air. Yet they padded the catcher spot in anticipation of having a game in the near future. The next questions will be how Lucroy is used and how long he sticks around.