If Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wants a difference-maker behind the plate, Kurt Suzuki is going to be a backup catcher in 2019. Oh, Suzuki may still get to strap on the gear and catch 50 or 60 games, but banking on a 35-year-old to handle the game’s most physically demanding position for 110 or more games is asking for a lot.
So buckle up, make sure that your seatbacks and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions, and get ready for some turbulence as the Nationals attempt to land a frontline catcher before the first pitch of next season is thrown. The Winter Meetings in Las Vegas next month should be a doozy, because there are some decent backstops available and Rizzo appears ready to pounce.
Two free agents - ex-Nat Wilson Ramos and Yasmani Grandal - should be of interest to the Nats. And we already know they covet Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto.
But what are the realistic chances that Rizzo will dig deep to ink a free agent who doesn’t pitch? Or empty the cupboard of top minor league prospects to acquire Realmuto in a trade? The Nationals don’t have unlimited funds - not if they want to stay under the luxury tax and avoid another penalty for exceeding it - and while there are some intriguing prospects in the system, the Marlins are going to want the can’t-miss guys the Nats are banking on for the future.
Let’s deal with Realmuto first. He’s coming off a season when he hit .277/.340/.484, made his first All-Star team and won his first Silver Slugger. The bone bruise in his back that delayed his debut because of a stint on the disabled list was hardly a roadblock to a stellar season. He threw out 21 of the 55 runners who attempted to steal on him, good for a 38 percent average that was significantly better than the league average of 28 percent.
Research from StatCorner indicates, however, that Realmuto still has some work to do in terms of being a more effective pitch-framer. The site’s Runs Above Average metric, based on some very deep analytical numbers-crunching, rates Realmuto as the sixth-worst catcher in the majors last year with a minus-15.2 mark (just ahead of Suzuki, who scored at minus-17.3). Realmuto’s eight passed balls last year were two off the National League lead of the Phillies’ Jorge Alfaro (10).
Now it’s possible that, at 27 and just entering his peak seasons, Realmuto just isn’t feeling it in Miami - and who could really blame him. The Marlins are deep into another rebuild, their pitching staff is a shambles and Realmuto has already expressed an interest in playing elsewhere next season. It’s hard for a team to part with one of its few marquee players, which bring us to the idea of what it would take for the Nats to acquire him.
Previous discussions with the Marlins involving Realmuto were painfully short, since the Fish wanted either Juan Soto or Victor Robles to headline a package of multiple players. That isn’t going to happen - not with the Nats needing to cushion themselves against the possible loss of slugging free agent outfielder Bryce Harper. But let’s say for the sake of argument that the Marlins were willing to accept a package that included promising infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia plus another player. Can Rizzo, who has never shied away from turning prospects into major league talent that can help right away, afford to part with two guys who could be part of his infield for years to come (and play second base, a position at which the Nats have little major league-ready minor league depth)? Can they solve one problem by creating another?
Maybe Rizzo gambles and swings that deal. Villagers were massing on South Capitol Street with pitchforks nad torches in December 2011 when he packaged four top prospects in a deal with the A’s that netted Gio Gonzalez and gave the Nats a left-handed rotation mainstay for seven seasons. Rizzo did the same thing two winters ago when he bundled three top pitching prospects in a trade that secured up to five years of team control on outfielder Adam Eaton. Rizzo is quick to point out that prospects are valuable currency, and that shrewd GMs know when to go all-in to fill a need.
If he doesn’t push all of his prospect chips to the middle of the table, Rizzo could pull out his checkbook and pay big for a free agent. MLBTradeRumors.com predicts that the switch-hitting Grandal will sign with the Nats for four years and $64 million. Grandal, 30, is considered the best free agent catcher on the market, a career .240/.341/.441 hitter over seven seasons, the last four of which came with the Dodgers. He’s hit 73 homers over the past three seasons. Grandal has averaged 122 games behind the plate over that stretch, including a career-high 135 games caught in 2018.
But as with all players, there is some bad to go with the good. Though he generally carries a reputation as a strong defender - Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the game’s top defensive catcher entering 2018, based on superior ball-blocking and pitch-framing work - the postseason in October was a nightmare for Grandal. He dropped throws from the outfield, and in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Brewers, he became the first catcher in major league history to commit two errors and be charged with two passed balls in the same game, three of those miscues coming in the span of six pitches in the third inning.
Grandal still gets exceedingly high marks from StatCorner, which ranked him second in the majors (behind the Diamondbacks’ Jeff Mathis) with a Runs Above Average of 13.8. He was league average at 28 percent in catching would-be base stealers, nabbing 20 of 72, but was one off the league lead with nine passed balls. In fact, Grandal has led the NL in that category three times in his seven years in the bigs. Maybe that’s attributable to catching a lot of innings or playing for poor Padres teams early in his career. But it’s a red flag, nonetheless - especially for a Nationals team that needs tight defense.
The sentimental favorite in this trio of possible catching solutions is Ramos, who came into his own behind the plate for the Nats from 2011-16, finishing fourth in the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year balloting, and claiming an All-Star nod and Silver Slugger in 2016. Unfortunately, Ramos’ time in D.C. is also remembered for injuries. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in May 2012 and missed the rest of the season, and then hurt his hamstring twice in 2013, broke his left hand in the 2014 opener and tore the ACL in his right knee in September 2016, missing the postseason.
Ramos signed with the Rays in December 2016 as a free agent, agreeing to a two-year, $12.5 million deal, and did his usual bang-up job in rehab, debuting with Tampa Bay on June 24, 2017. He was an American League All-Star in 2018 - missing the Midsummer Classic in D.C. due to a hamstring injury - and was dealt to the Phillies at the non-waiver trade deadline, possibly preventing him from winning his second Silver Slugger.
MLBTradeRumors thinks Ramos will secure a three-year, $36 million contract, but has him going to the Astros (though admitting that a reunion with the Nats is possible). But are the Nats willing to lay out that kind of coin for a guy whose injury history reads like he was a cast regular in “ER”?
Ramos can swing the bat. Baseball-Reference.com predicts he could average 23 homers in full seasons not interrupted by injury, and he’s slashed .298/.343/.483 with 48 homers over his past three seasons. But he’s also caught just 286 games in that span, and his 128 games with the Nats in 2016 are his career high. Asking a guy north of 30 with that kind of injury history to shoulder a heavy load may be asking a lot more than he’s capable of delivering. But maybe a shared arrangement between Ramos and Suzuki could work.
Ramos, 31, threw out 14 of 48 attempted base stealers last year, so his 29 percent mark is a tick above league average, and his 32 percent career success rate is decent. But it’s not the 38 percent he had in 2014, the 44 percent he had in 2015 or the 37 percent he had in 2016 - all in a Nationals uniform. He’s trending the wrong way in controlling the running game, though his pitching staffs have had something to say about that. StatCorner says his Runs Above Average is minus-7.6. Ramos has improved as a pitch blocker - something that challenged him early in his career - but his 10 passed balls put him in a three-way tie with Grandal and Welington Castillo for the NL lead in 2016, arguably his best all-around season.
It’s still possible the Nats could go with Suzuki to handle the bulk of their catching duties in 2019, with Spencer Kieboom, Pedro Severino or a lesser trade/free agent acquisition backing him up. And while there’s something to like about the three catchers dissected above - Realmuto hitting his peak years, Grandal’s defensive pedigree, the Nats’ comfort level with Ramos - there are also reasons none of the three may wind up in D.C.