Down the stretch this season, the Nationals leaned heavily on catcher Wilson Ramos, who was finally healthy after missing most of the 2012 season with a knee injury and then twice landing on the disabled list due to hamstring problems in the first half of the 2013 campaign.
If Ramos can stay healthy in 2014 (and, yes, that’s a big if), he’ll likely see a large portion of the playing time yet again. After all, the guy did slug 14 homers and drive in 53 runs over the final three months of the season.
Average those numbers over a full season, and you’ll see why the Nats want Ramos in the lineup as much as possible.
Currently, the Nationals have two backup catchers on their 40-man roster - Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, both of whom have seen minimal action in the big leagues. Solano has a career line of .217/.253/.349 with two homers in 36 games (83 at-bats), while Leon has a .258/.378/.323 line in 14 big league games (31 at-bats).
Both guys have strong defensive abilities, but both are unproven at the big league level and neither offers too much with the bat.
Under normal circumstances, there’s a chance Nationals might be willing to let Solano and Leon battle it out in spring training to see who earns the backup catching job. But because of Ramos’ injury history, these are not normal circumstances.
The Nats will likely need to add a more experienced backup catcher this offseason, someone who can handle the full-time load should Ramos go down to an injury yet again. In 2012, the Nats acquired Kurt Suzuki in a trade with the Athletics, and he served as the top catcher with Ramos out for the year with his knee injury. Last year, Suzuki again picked up the slack when Ramos went down.
Look for the Nats to add a similar type of catcher this offseason, one with a few hundred big league games under his belt (not a few dozen) and someone who can be counted on if needed behind the plate for an extended stretch.
Here is the list of free agent catchers the Nationals will look at this offseason, compiled by MLBTradeRumors.com, with age in parentheses:
Henry Blanco (42)
John Buck (33)
Hector Gimenez (31)
Ramon Hernandez (38)
Koyie Hill (35)
Brian McCann (30)
Jose Molina (38)
Dioner Navarro (30)
Wil Nieves (36)
Miguel Olivo (35)
A.J. Pierzynski (37)
Humberto Quintero (34)
Guillermo Quiroz (32)
Carlos Ruiz (35)
Jarrod Saltalamacchia (29)
Kelly Shoppach (34)
Kurt Suzuki (30)
Taylor Teagarden (30)
Yorvit Torrealba (35)
A number of the guys listed above are clear starting catchers, so we can cross guys like McCann, Saltalamacchia and Pierzynski off the list immediately. But there are also a host of backup options for general manager Mike Rizzo to pick through.
When looking for a backup catcher, Rizzo might need to prioritize whether he wants a more defensive-oriented backstop, or someone who can handle the bat a bit better.
Molina, for example, would be a strong addition if the Nats are looking for someone who is better defensively. The 14-year veteran has thrown out 38 percent of attempted basestealers in his career, is known for calling a good game behind the plate and also could be a great mentor for Ramos. He, however, offers little with the bat. Blanco is a similar type of option.
If Rizzo is looking for more offensive production out of his backup catcher, Buck (15 homers in 2013), Nieves (.297/.320/.369 in 2013) or Olivo (has averaged 14 homers a season since 2006) could be a decent fit.
There are also a few guys - Navarro, Torrealba and Suzuki come to mind - who could provide a nice mix of offensive and defensive ability.
The question is: would a quality free agent catcher with multiple suitors be interested in signing with the Nats, where he knows he’ll be playing a clear second-fiddle to Ramos? Would Navarro want to come to D.C. and play in only 30-40 games if Ramos stays healthy? Would Suzuki want to return to the Nats if he knows he won’t get much playing time? Maybe not. Is the Nats’ backup job high on Buck’s list of options? I doubt it.
We’ll see whether the Nats can make a good sales pitch or offer enough cash to woo one of the top free agent backups to the nation’s capital. If not, a more one-sided backstop could be more likely.