Mike Rizzo notoriously doesn’t tip his hand when it comes to offseason targets, but if you’re willing to take him at his word, it appears the Nationals general manager intends to go into the 2021 season with Yan Gomes catching more than 50 percent of his team’s games and a still-to-be-acquired veteran backing him up.
During Tuesday’s Zoom session with reporters, his first since late September, Rizzo indicated the Nationals are prepared to have Gomes start a majority of games begin the plate. That would seem to knock them out of the running for a new No. 1 catcher, most notably the highly coveted J.T. Realmuto.
“I think Yan’s capable of it,” Rizzo said. “He’s done it on championship-caliber clubs in Cleveland and with us. It’s such a demanding, physically taxing position that we certainly would like to take a little bit of burden off him. But I think he’s capable of playing 90 to 110 games at least. And we’re certainly going to have to get him a complement over there.”
Realmuto would hardly be considered a complement to anyone. The 29-year-old is among the biggest-name free agents on the market this winter and is expected to command one of the biggest contracts handed out. Rizzo has long coveted him but previously refused to trade then-prospects Juan Soto and Victor Robles to the Marlins for him.
Now that he’s a free agent following two seasons in Philadelphia, Realmuto won’t cost prospects in a trade. But he will cost lots of dollars, most likely nine figures.
Asked Tuesday if he’s had conversations with Realmuto yet, Rizzo pointed out the two-time All-Star is represented by the same agency (CAA) that also counts Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner. Conversations between the two parties happen regularly. Asked if he expects to be in the mix for Realmuto, Rizzo responded: “I’m not going to elaborate on specific free agents and what our levels (of interest) are.”
If they are seriously pursuing Realmuto, it would contradict everything else Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez said Tuesday about the Nationals’ 2021 plans behind the plate.
Like his boss, Martinez talked up Gomes as a starting catcher during his Zoom sessioon with reporters, saying he told the 33-year-old in late September to prepare to catch 100 or more games next season.
“He wants to do it. He feels like he can do it,” Martinez said. “And he’s been good. Obviously, we’re going to go out there and try to find another backup catcher. ... That’s a tough position. But I really do feel like Yan can go out there every day and handle our pitching staff and play really well.”
Gomes shared catching duties with Kurt Suzuki the last two seasons, starting 90 of 162 regular season games and seven of 17 postseason games in 2019, then 30 of 60 games in 2020. He started 90-plus games for Cleveland in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, when he made the American League All-Star team. He’s coming off a 2020 season in which he hit .284 with a .468 slugging percentage and .787 OPS, his highest offensive marks in six years.
With the 37-year-old Suzuki now a free agent and seemingly headed elsewhere, Gomes is probably destined to pair up with a new catching partner next season. Among the options via free agency are Mike Zunino, Jason Castro, Alex Avila, Curt Casalli, Robinson Chirinos and Tyler Flowers.
What about in-house candidates? Though he expressed confidence in Tres Barrera and Raudy Read on Tuesday, Rizzo admitted both catchers are at best big league backups over the long haul. While comfortable calling either up in case of injury, the Nationals appear to need a more experienced catcher capable of starting three games a week and ascending to the No. 1 job if Gomes gets hurt.
Israel Pineda, the organization’s top catching prospect, has the potential to start someday. But the 20-year-old has yet to reach high Single-A and isn’t in the Nationals’ immediate plans to fill an important role on the major league roster.
“It’s such a demanding position,” Rizzo said. “You’re a foul tip away from having to really scramble back there. So we’re going to keep all our options open. We like some of our young players, as far as taking over that backup role in the future. But we certainly would like to get a partner to go along with Yan.”