What lies ahead for Pedro Severino?

If you're Nationals catcher Pedro Severino, it's been quite a whirlwind few months.

Summoned from Triple-A Syracuse on Sept. 2 for the stretch run, Severino's presence took on added significance on Sept. 26, when Wilson Ramos sustained a season-ending knee injury. Suddenly, Severino found himself starting two games in the National League Division Series.

But since the Nats were eliminated from the playoffs, Severino has been on the proverbial roller coaster. When Ramos elected to test free agency, eventually landing a two-year deal with the Rays, it seemed like Severino was positioned to share catching duties in 2017 with incumbent backup Jose Lobaton. Then, in early December, the Nationals reacquired Derek Norris to be their primary catcher. Through it all, the team has been linked to free agent backstop Matt Wieters, though there appears to be little actual interest, unless Wieters falls to the Nats at a greatly reduced price.

Severino-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgSo where does all of that leave Severino, long believed to be the Nationals' catcher of the future?

When the Nationals report to The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches next month, Severino will still sit third on the depth chart behind the plate, beneath Norris and Lobaton. It doesn't matter that he's viewed as a superior defender to that tandem, or that he slashed .321/.441/.607 in limited action (16 games) last season. Baseball has a pecking order and Severino still has some pecking to do.

There's no doubt that Severino has his champions in the organization, chief among them third base coach Bobby Henley, a former big league backstop who works with the major league team's catchers, and manager Dusty Baker, who thought he was advanced enough to start games in the NLDS. But that's not enough.

When the Nats arrive in West Palm Beach, eyes will be focused squarely on Severino, a 23-year-old with a bright future ahead of him. The Nats will pay close attention to his work habits, how he meshes with the major league mound staff now that more is expected of him, whether he's able to shed the tag of a good defensive catcher who could hit better.

Since he was signed as an undrafted free agent in December 2010, Severino's ample skills behind the plate have long been trumpeted by the Nationals. They love his hands, the fluidity of his movement behind the plate, the strength of his arm and the way he uses his 6-foot, 215-lb. frame to block balls and present a target.

For years, scouts I've talked to have told me that Severino's bat would eventually catch up to his defensive abilities, and that appears to be happening. No one has ever presented Severino as a power hitter - he homered two times at Triple-A last year and twice with the Nats, and his career high is nine homers with Single-A Potomac in 2014 - but if he could replicate his .271 average from Syracuse last season over a major league campaign, the Nationals would be quite happy.

Some in the organization think Severino needs to be motivated, that he's prone to falling into a comfort zone because he's advanced defensively. That won't wash if Severino wants to earn major league time, which will come sooner than later. Lobaton is a free agent after 2017 and Norris has two more years of team control.

So spring training looms as a critical juncture for Severino. Even if he doesn't crack the 25-man roster that breaks camp, Severino is assured lots of at-bats, significant time working with guys who will go north in April and an opportunity to open eyes.

Could he push Lobaton off the roster? Perhaps, though that would be an unpopular move in the clubhouse, and clubhouse constitution takes on more importance as opening day grows closer. Lobaton is signed for $1.575 million for 2017, not a pricey sum, but more than the $480,000 major league minimum that Severino will be earning. Everything is lining up for Severino to replace Lobaton, but likely not until 2018.

Norris is the starter, but if there's an injury above him on the depth chart, Severino needs to be ready, just as he was when Ramos crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain on a rainy September night. But being ready isn't enough, and the Nationals would like to see Severino push the envelope and make their roster decisions difficult as spring training progresses. With a bunch of young catchers in the low minors eager to make an impression on the Nats, that shouldn't be a difficult goal for Severino to accomplish.

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