Even before the details of the Jose Lobaton-Nathan Karns trade were made public, I declared that the trade “made sense”. My reasoning was simple: the Nats needed a backup catcher and there was no room for Nathan Karns on the 2014 roster. At the time, I assumed the Rays would be sending the Nats a lesser prospect or two to bridge the value gap between a MLB-ready starting pitching prospect and a backup catcher.
Now that we know the names of the two prospects sent to the Nationals by the Rays–LHP Felipe Rivero and OF Drew Vettleson–this trade makes even more sense.
1) Tampa needs Nathan Karns more than the Nationals do. Karns made his major league debut last season, meaning his MLB service clock has already started to run. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, except the Nationals have nowhere to put him (unless the Nats want to go with a 8-man rotation). With all of the Nationals current starting pitchers under contract again next season, Karns’s most valuable seasons would have been wasted.
Tampa, by contrast, will likely need Karns in the rotation this season (especially since Jeremy Hellickson is having health issues again). The Rays are known for producing quality players from their farm system, but their talent pipeline has temporarily dried up. Their system was recently ranked 23 out of 30 teams by ESPN. Moreover, among their top prospects, only Jake Odorizzi is ready for MLB action–most of their young pitchers are years away. Because of their low payroll, the Rays can’t sign a Dan Haren or Edwin Jackson like the Nats did in 2013 and 2012, respectively. If there’s a hole in their rotation, the Rays have to plug someone in from the minor leagues. If no one is available, they have to trade for one. Enter Karns.
2. The Nationals need Rivero and Vettleson more than the Rays do. Rivero and Vettleson are both 22 year-olds who finished the 2013 season in high A. Even on the most optimistic timetable, they are 2, maybe 3, years away from being ready for the majors. This fits the Nationals timeline perfectly. The Nationals roster will see heavy turnover in the next 2-3 seasons as the following players hit free agency: Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, and Rafael Soriano. The Nats will soon need to restock the pantry. They’re better off with prospects a little further away from the major leagues.
Tampa, on the other hand, is loaded with lower level prospects. Yes, Tampa loses a 2010 first round pick in Vettleson, but keep in mind Tampa had 3 first round picks that year. And a year later, in the 2011 draft, they had 10 first round picks. That’s not a typo. Through a fluke in the old draft pick compensatory system, the Rays 2010 and 2011 draft classes are like a large rat being digested in the belly of a snake. Of course, a glut of prospects is always a good thing, but if a few aren’t moved somewhere else, there’s always a chance of eventually losing some to the Rule 5 draft or creating a backlog awaiting entry onto the MLB roster (not unlike Karns’s situation this year with the Nationals). If the Rays need a MLB-ready player now, they are smart to trade from an organizational strength.
Jose Lobaton headlined this trade. But even without him, it makes sense for both teams.