It looks like the final piece is in place for the 2014 Nationals. Mike Rizzo looked all offseason for a suitable backup catcher to Wilson Ramos and came up empty. Now on the eve of Spring Training, he finally found one.
The Nationals send pitcher Nathan Karns to the Tampa Bay Rays for catcher Jose Lobaton and reportedly two minor leaguers.
It’s hard to get excited about this trade. It’s doubtful MLB.com will start printing up Lobaton jerseys this afternoon. But this trade is necessary and it makes sense for a few reasons.
1) The Nationals need a backup catcher. Kurt Suzuki was a fan favorite, but his lack of production last year murdered the 2013 Nationals season. He and Danny Espinosa were the two biggest reasons a consensus preseason World Series favorite only won 86 games. The numbers aren’t pretty, but they are worth reviewing. Suzuki, in 281 plate appearances, only got on base 79 times for a .283 clip, and that’s including six intentional walks since he often batted in front of the pitcher. Once Suzuki was mercifully sent back to Oakland, Jhonatan Solano was even worse, getting on base only 9 times in 48 plate appearances. The Nationals simply didn’t have a viable backup heading into the season.
2) Wilson Ramos is still a risk. Ramos missed all but 25 games in 2012 and played in only 78 games last season. There’s a good chance the Nationals backup catcher will simply be the catcher some point soon. Until Wilson Ramos shows some ability to play a full season, a backup catcher is not a luxury for the Nats. It’s a necessity.
3) Nathan Karns had nowhere to go. The Nationals have abundance of pitchers this season. Three viable options–Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordon, and Ross Detwiler–will be battling for the fifth starter spot. Karns would likely have spent the entire 2014 season in the bullpen or AAA. For a 26 year old pitcher who has already made his major league debut, this is a poor allocation of team resources. The Nationals are better off flipping Karns for someone who can help now. The Nationals are also better off having younger pitchers further away from the majors, who will arrive when the Nationals actually need them–for instance when Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister leave via free agency two years from now.
4) Jose Lobaton is better than you think. Do you know what Jose Lobaton did last year? He got on base, at least more often than Kurt Suzuki or Jhonathan Solano did. Lobaton had a .320 OBP in 311 PAs. He also had decent power with 7 home runs. No, these are not all-star numbers. But there are no all-stars available right now. Jose Lobaton is available, and he’s a guy that won’t embarrass your home town team when filling in on Sunday afternoon.