The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the season winds down, the Nats’ backup catcher spot is up for the taking

In Keibert Ruiz's absence, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez has promised to rotate between Riley Adams (above), Tres Barrera and rookie Israel Pineda. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

At last July’s trade deadline, as the Washington Nationals plotted the first steps of their rebuild, they placed a heavy premium on young catchers. Keibert Ruiz was the biggest name, a top prospect from the Los Angeles Dodgers who headlined the return for Trea Turner and Max Scherzer. Behind him, the team added Riley Adams from the Toronto Blue Jays and Drew Millas from the Oakland Athletics.

So after a 30-hour fire sale, there was a bit of depth where there had previously been none at all. And 13 months later, in the final weeks of a dim season — the first full year of a rebuild that now includes the Nationals dealing Juan Soto back on Aug. 2 — that depth will be put beneath a microscope.

Ruiz, 24, is on the injured list with a testicular contusion and could be finished for the season. In his absence, Manager Dave Martinez has promised to rotate between Adams, Tres Barrera and rookie Israel Pineda, who made his major league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday. Behind those three in the minors, there are Millas and Brady Lindsly, who was a fourth-round pick in 2020 and has spent the whole season with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators.

But behind them? That’s when the options for Ruiz’s future backup thin out.

CJ Abrams was a ‘fearless’ high school Spanish student. It’s helping him now.

Since Ruiz went to the IL, Adams and Pineda have each started twice, with Pineda going 0 for 4 with a passed ball and thrown out runner against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. Pineda, 22, sped through the system this season and has the most offensive potential of the group. He had 16 homers when he was promoted this past Friday, including seven in a 26-game stretch in Harrisburg. He then made a pit stop with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings before replacing Ruiz on the active roster. On defense, Pineda has a strong arm but has to improve his framing and game-calling. That’s common for a catcher of his age.

At the moment, he’s beneath Adams and Barrera in the unofficial pecking order. Experience is the differentiating factor. From last September to this July, Adams, 26, had a fixed role of spelling Ruiz here and there. But once he struggled at the plate to begin 2022, he was sent to the minors in favor of the 27-year-old Barrera. Then they were flipped again while the club was in Seattle in late August. Then Barrera was recalled when rosters expanded to 28 players.

Adams’s batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line on the year: .188/.261/.297 in 111 plate appearances.

Barrera’s slash line: .182/.229/.212 in an even smaller sample of 35 plate appearances.

Of the two, Adams has shown much more upside in the box, impressing in his first two months with Washington. Barrera, however, is a stronger game-caller who fits the profile of a traditional backup catcher. Millas and Lindsly do, too, though they’re a good distance from the mix.

Millas, a 24-year-old switch-hitter, started the year with an oblique injury and has bounced between Harrisburg and high-Class A Wilmington. Lindsly, 24 and a left-handed hitter, signed for a $20,000 bonus — well below his slot value two summers ago — and has a 197/260/.322 slash line for the Senators. Taylor Gushue, 28, had left the Nationals, debuted for the Chicago Cubs in 2021 and is now back with the organization and catching in Rochester. Catcher Jakson Reetz, picked in the third round by Washington in 2014, left the club after last season, crushed it in the Milwaukee Brewers’ system, mashing 22 homers in AA, then was briefly with the Brewers in August before he was released and scooped up by the Kansas City Royals on a minors deal.

Orioles’ playoff hopes are for the birds, but this season has been one to remember

There’s no rule saying the Nationals have to find Ruiz’s complement internally. If they become contenders again with Ruiz catching, they could pair him with a veteran backup who calls good games and is a rock behind the plate. The Baltimore Orioles have showcased this model with star rookie Adley Rutschman and 38-year-old Robinson Chirinos, who visit Nationals Park for a two-game set this week. And if Ruiz hits for a lot more power down the line, there would be a case to move him to first base to preserve his legs and maximize his bat.

The point is that, for at least another year, Washington’s roster and plans will be very flexible. A handful of spots will be treated like ongoing tryouts. The late-season battle for Adams, Barrera and Pineda — the battle for interest from the staff and front office ahead of spring training 2023 — is just one part of the picture.