In talking about the catching talent and depth in the Washington Nationals' organization back in 2011, which at the time included the likes of Pudge Rodriguez, Wilson Ramos, Jesus Flores and Derek Norris, then-Scouting Director Doug Harris, who has since been promoted to Assistant GM and VP of Player Development, mentioned another catcher for MLB Network Radio hosts Mel Antonen and Grant Paulsen to keep an eye on.
Sandy Leon, Harris said, is, "...a little bit of an under-the-radar catcher. A switch-hitting catcher that will likely play in Potomac this year that is a tremendous defender, game-caller, switch bat, and you know he's going to sneak his way into that group."
Leon was 21 years old at the time Harris praised the young backstop, and he went on to have a .251/.312/.362 season at High-A Potomac in 2011 in which he hit 21 doubles and six home runs in 109 games and 416 plate appearances while posting a .987 fld% and a 53% CS%.
Leon debuted in the majors in 2012 when the Nationals suffered a series of injuries to their catchers. In 12 games and 36 plate appearances for the Nationals, the then-23-year-old Leon was 8 for 30 with two doubles.
"We feel that we have great catching depth," Rizzo said at the time. "We've got two guys below in Solano and Leon below that we feel have a chance to be everyday catchers in the big leagues someday, so we feel fortified at that position." With Ramos and Kurt Suzuki (acquired from Oakland in August 2012) on the roster, however, both Solano and Leon started the season in the minors.
Leon spent most of the 2013 campaign at Double-A Harrisburg, where he put up a .177/.291/.252 line with 12 doubles and three home runs in 95 games and 351 PAs.
Solano debuted in the majors in 2012 as well, going 11 for 35 (.314/.351/.571) with three doubles and two home runs in 12 games and his first 37 MLB PAs. In 24 games in the majors in 2013, the right-handed hitting catcher was 7 for 48 (.146/.180/.188) with two doubles in 50 PAs. In 40 games at Triple-A Syracuse last season, Solano put up a .214/.245/.279 line in 148 plate appearances.
When Suzuki was traded back to Oakland this past August, it was Solano who came up to serve as the primary backup to Ramos.
Doug Harris, back in his 2011 interview, praised the work of the coaches throughout the Nats' system who were behind the development of the talent the Nationals were producing behind the plate.
"We feel really good about our ability to develop catching," Harris said. "Certainly with Bob Boone in house, people like Bobby Henley, Randy Knorr, Matthew LeCroy as one of our managers, we feel like we're well-equipped to handle the needs of catchers."
Three of those four (all of whom were catchers as players) will be in the majors this season, having been added to new Nats' manager Matt Williams' staff in the cases of Henley and LeCroy, or retained in the case of Knorr. Boone remains the Nationals' VP of Player Personnel.
Henley, who has 41 major league games and eight minor league seasons as a catcher on his resume, was named the Nationals' third base coach in November after ten years in the organization, the last four spent as the Minor League Field Coordinator. LeCroy, who caught 124 games over eight seasons in the majors, was hired as the bullpen coach after serving as Double-A Harrisburg's manager last season.
Knorr, who caught 239 major league games in his 11-year career, chose to return to his role as the Nats' bench coach after interviewing for the manager's job.
Heading into the 2014 campaign, and barring any additional signings, Leon, now 24, is one of three catchers along with the 28-year-old Solano and 32-going-on-33-year-old veteran Chris Snyder (who signed a minor league deal with the Nats on Saturday), who is expected to compete for the backup job behind Ramos, who's healthy and expected to start the majority of the games for the Nationals if he remains so.
The Nationals are confident enough in Ramos, that before the acquisition of Snyder, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo talked to reporters about being comfortable with either Leon or Solano backing up in spite of their offensive issues and relative inexperience at the major league level. Ramos returned from the second of two hamstring injuries last July and impressed down the stretch as the clear-cut no.1 after the Nationals traded Suzuki back to the A's.
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"'Going into spring training right now, we’re comfortable with what we have,'" Rizzo told NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman. "'We’re always looking to upgrade. We did it two years ago when Wilson got hurt and we went and got a Suzuki.'"
Ramos, 26, finished his fourth major league season with a .272/.307/.470 line, nine doubles and a career-high 16 home runs in 303 plate appearances, over which he was worth +1.8 fWAR.
Rizzo told NatsInsider.com's Mr. Zuckerman he was confident that Ramos, who played a career-high 113 games in 2011, but has played a total of 103 games in the past two seasons while dealing with a serious knee injury and two hamstring injuries which led to DL stints, can stay on the field for 125-130 games this season. "'I think he can take on that load,'" Rizzo said. "'And if that’s the case, we feel good about what we’ve got as our backups.'"
Chris Snyder can earn $1M plus incentives if he makes #nationals roster out of spring training. Signed minor league deal.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) December 21, 2013
That was before the Nationals signed Chris Snyder, however. The deal the veteran catcher which was announced on Saturday, according to SI.com's Jerry Crasnick, is a minor league deal that will pay him $1M plus incentives if he makes the Nationals' roster out of Spring Training. Confident as the Nats have said they are in Leon and Solano, they signed a veteran to push their in-house options. If either can beat out Snyder (or any other competition brought in to camp), there will be plenty of catching experience on the Nationals' coaching staff for either catcher to call upon.
Is Snyder, who signed a similar deal with Washington last spring but opted out when it was clear he wouldn't make the major league roster, a stronger backup option than either Leon or Solano? The veteran catcher had a combined .273/.330/.477 line with 14 doubles and 13 HRs in 73 games and 286 PAs with the LA Angels and Baltimore Orioles' Triple-A affiliates, but he's played a combined 119 games in the majors since 2010, over which he's put up a .199/.316/.320 line while playing solid defense for the Pirates, Astros and O's.
Do the Nationals trust any of the three to play significant games if Ramos were to suffer an injury and miss time? Or do the Nats think they can just find a catcher out there if Ramos has any serious injury issues this season?
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