Why Nats need to find a veteran catcher behind top tandem

When the Nationals re-signed catcher Yan Gomes to a two-year, $10 million contract in late November, it assured them of retaining their productive tandem behind the plate for at least another season. Gomes rejoined Kurt Suzuki, who is entering the final campaign of a two-year, $10 million deal inked last offseason.

That’s two catchers who the veteran Nationals pitchers love throwing to, two guys who hold their own with the leather and were surprisingly productive at the plate last season, combining for 29 homers and 106 RBIs despite a pedestrian .231 batting average.

So general manager Mike Rizzo can cross the tools of ignorance off his offseason checklist, right?

Not so fast.

While Gomes and Suzuki tag-teamed to solidify the Nats’ catching corps in 2019, penciling them in for the same kind of production and defense for 2020 would be asking a lot. What’s the old line about past performance not being indicative of future results?

By next opening day, Gomes will be 32 and Suzuki 36, and another year older doesn’t necessarily mean another year better. Now that’s not to say that the duo won’t defy convention and Father Time to put up statistics at and behind the plate that are comparable to their 2019 marks. It could happen. But when backstops get on the back side of 30, the drop seems to be precipitous rather than gradual.

Suzuki Throws Blue World Series.jpgSuzuki was clearly the more consistent of the two, good for a few homers a month (and clutch ones, at that) and boasting a batting average that hovered mostly around the mid-.260s for most of the second half. His power surge was a pleasant development, continuing a trend that saw him hit 31 homers (19 in 2017 and 12 in 2018) during his two seasons with the Braves.

Gomes struggled at the plate early last season until a 9-for-24 stretch to close out May got his average back to .240. After hitting .163 in June and .184 in July, he closed a little more strongly, slashing .227/.328/.467 with nine homers over the final three months.

But the time-sharing arrangement hit a speed bump in the final month of the season, when right elbow inflammation shelved Suzuki, and again during the World Series, when Suzuki was bothered by a right hip flexor. The productive tandem suddenly became a one-man show with Gomes shouldering the load because the Nats weren’t confident with either of the alternatives, Raudy Read and Tres Barrera, two rookies with no significant major league experience.

Barring a change or acquisition, the Nats will head to spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., with the same top four names on their catching depth chart. All of which makes it more important for Rizzo to find a veteran receiver who can serve as an insurance policy should something happen to either Gomes or Suzuki and share behind-the-plate duties at Triple-A Fresno with whichever of the remaining catchers are determined to have the best chance of developing into a backup who could become a starter.

In the not-so-distant past, that would have meant a good glove guy (see: José Lobaton), who could offer minimal offense if needed. I’m not sure that job description is still the same, however. For a catcher to prosper with the Nationals pitching staff, he needs to be defensively minded, a decent framer, have enough of an arm to control the running game and not be an automatic out. That’s asking a lot from the middling crop of receivers still on the free agent market.

Jason Castro, 32, who had 13 homers and 36 RBIs for the Twins last season, could fit the bill. He’s always drawn high marks for framing and has a league-average caught stealing percentage. Rizzo has long been enamored of Jonathan Lucroy, now 33, who split last season between the Angels and Cubs and has seen his power fall off since his All-Star campaign in 2016. For most of his career, he’s hovered around league average at throwing out basestealers, but 2019 saw him post a 21 percent mark, matching the worst of his career. Elias Díaz, late of the Pirates, offers more offense and a little pop, plus a caught stealing rate that’s always been around league average. All three are still unsigned; right now, there doesn’t seem to be a huge market for their services, so a minor league deal with the promise of a camp invite and a chance to catch semi-regularly in Fresno could entice one of them.

Past those alternatives, there are fewer sure things - mostly aging guys in their 30s like Welington Castillo, Matt Wieters, Chris Iannetta and Nick Hundley. More functional than flashy, these are guys with track records who are available. Not the cream of the crop, but there could be a match to be made. Maybe there’s a reunion with Spencer Kieboom in the offing. The Nats outrighted him off the 40-man roster late in the season after designating him for assignment and he elected free agency right after the World Series. At least Kieboom offers familiarity.

Or Rizzo could wait until deeper into spring training, hope Barrera and/or Read surprise or poach the waiver wire for someone who gets caught in a numbers crunch. The GM has shown a propensity for not rushing into a cloudy market, preferring to wait until muddled pictures clear up before striking.

However you slice it, it’s imperative that Rizzo address the catching depth - preferably sooner rather than later - so the Nats aren’t backed into a corner by being forced to use an untested backstop with a veteran staff that thrives on familiarity and comfort levels.

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