Sandy Leon is tearing up Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional pitching this winter. After 35 games for the Aguilas de Zulia, the Washington Nationals' 24-year-old catcher is 40 for 113 (.354/.444/.487), with seven doubles, a triple, two home runs, 18 walks and 25 Ks. With all the necessary caveats about reading too much into Winter League stats, it's been a breakout run at the plate in VWL action for the Maracaibo, Zuila, Venezuela-born backstop who signed with the Nats as an amateur free agent in 2007.
Leon debuted in Venezuelan Winter League action with two games in 2010, and played 14 games for the Aguilas in 2011, going 7 for 28 (.250/.344/.250) with two walks and four Ks.
In 2012, the switch-hitting catcher was 21 for 86 (.244/.293/.314) with a double, triple, home run, six walks and 23 Ks in 32 games. This season with Zulia, Leon's hitting from both sides of the plate, putting up a .379/.455/.379 line (.834 OPS) vs left-handed pitching and a .345/.440/.524 line (.964 OPS) with all of his extra base hits against right-handed pitchers.
Leon made his MLB debut in May of 2012, but was injured on a play at the plate in his first major league game. He played 11 more games in the majors that season, putting up a .276/.400/.345 line with four walks and 11 Ks over 35 plate appearances. In 64 games in his sixth season in the Nationals' system in 2012, the 5'11'' backstop had a combined .322/.396/.460 line with 19 doubles, three home runs, 24 walks and 30 Ks in 231 plate appearances.
Baseball America named Leon the Best Defensive Catcher in the Nationals' organization after the 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012 seasons with only Wilson Ramos (2010) and Pedro Severino (2013) interrupting Leon's reign as the top defensive backstop in the system.
Though the Nationals signed veteran backstop Chris Snyder to a Minor League deal with an invitation to Spring Training this weekend, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters, including NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman, at the recently-concluded Winter Meetings, that he was confident that either Leon or fellow catcher Jhonatan Solano could back Wilson Ramos up in 2014.
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"'The question comes in: If Wilson were to get hurt for an extended period of time, can they handle the load?'" Rizzo said. "'Going into spring training right now, we’re comfortable with what we have.'"
Leon, playing at Double-A Harrisburg this past season, missed time with a hand/finger injury and struggled at the plate, posting a .177/.291/.252 line with 12 doubles, a triple, three home runs, 47 walks and 60 Ks in 95 games and 361 PAs for the Senators. Leon had a .993 fld% behind the plate, however, with a 38% CS% (25 of 66).
Leon's manager in 2013, Matt LeCroy, (a former major league catcher who was named the Nats' bullpen coach for 2014), told PennLive.com's Geoff Morrow this August that Leon was, "...by far, one of the best catchers I've been around as a player and as a manager," while praising Leon's ability to make pitchers better and provide strong defense in spite of his offensive struggles.
Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell expressed his belief in a recent chat that the Nationals can't go into a season in which they expect to contend with light-hitting, unproven catchers like Leon and Solano as the top options should Ramos suffer an injury. With a good showing in Spring Training, can Leon, who'll turn 25 in March, beat out Solano, who played 27 games in the majors last season and Snyder, who can earn $1M if he makes the Opening Day roster? A defensively-gifted, switch-hitting, backup backstop?
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