Nationals catchers face tall task in replacing Ramos

As the start of spring training fast approaches, we're breaking down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series continues today with the catching corps ...

How do you replace an All-Star catcher who hit .307 with 22 homers, 80 RBIs, an .850 OPS and threw out 37 percent of opposing base stealers? The answer is: You don't.

The Nationals will feel the loss of Wilson Ramos this season, and there's not much they can do about that. After five years battling injuries and inconsistent performances, Ramos put it all together in 2016 in spectacular fashion, proving himself among the team's most valuable players. Shoot, it's not unreasonable to wonder if the Nats' season would have ended later in October had Ramos simply been on their postseason roster instead of the disabled list after tearing up his knee.

So it's unreasonable to ask for Ramos-quality production from their catching corps in 2017. But it's not unreasonable to ask for quality from this group. That quality may just come in different forms.

The man who ostensibly replaces Ramos is Derek Norris, the one-time Nationals prospect who was part of the December 2011 blockbuster trade that brought Gio Gonzalez from the Athletics. In five big league seasons, Norris owns a .233 batting average, .309 on-base percentage, .689 OPS and 26 percent caught-stealing rate. He's also coming off an awful season at the plate with the Padres in which he hit .186 with a .255 on-base percentage and .583 OPS.

The Nationals, though, are banking on a bounceback from Norris, who only one year earlier posted a .709 OPS and the year before was an All-Star primarily for his offensive production. They also believe his game-calling and pitch-framing skills, much improved since he last wore a curly W jersey, will be a significant asset and perhaps even an improvement over the man he replaces.

Norris, 29, enters spring training as the No. 1 catcher, but that doesn't mean he's penciled in to catch 128 games like Ramos did last year. Look for Jose Lobaton to see more playing time than has been the case in the past.

Lobaton (owner of a career .632 OPS) is no offensive force, but he is regarded as one of the best defensive catchers around. Members of the Nationals staff have long raved about his game-calling and pitch-framing skills, and those alone can be quite valuable.

Severino-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgPerhaps the biggest question related to the Nationals catching corps right now has nothing to do with either Norris or Lobaton but rather the guy behind them on the club's depth chart. Many in the organization believe Pedro Severino will be the No. 1 catcher at some point. They just don't know when that will happen.

Severino, 23, has already earned some trust from the coaching staff, which saw him hit .321 (9-for-28) with two homers and five walks in limited playing time in September and then put him behind the plate for Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Severino started two games and played two others in that series, and though he went just 1-for-10 at the plate, he did not appear to be too overwhelmed by the spotlight.

Conventional wisdom suggests Severino will open the season at Triple-A Syracuse, but if he performs well at that level and Norris struggles in Washington, the Nationals probably wouldn't hesitate to bring him up and give him a shot.

The organization has two other young catchers on its 40-man roster who will be in big league camp this spring and could be called upon down the road if needed. Spencer Kieboom hit .230 at Double-A Harrisburg but then got an unexpected promotion to the majors in late September after Ramos went down. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Raudy Read was added to the 40-man roster after hitting .262 with nine homers, 30 doubles and 51 RBIs at Single-A Potomac. The Dominican native still needs plenty of seasoning, but he's well-liked within the organization.

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