Heading into this offseason, Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told reporters that upgrading the catching corps would be a focus after two seasons with an oft-injured veteran, Matt Wieters, behind the plate as the No. 1 backstop in the nation’s capital.
“Wieters is a free agent,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s The Sports Junkies back in late September.
“We’ve got our two young kids in [Pedro] Severino and [Spencer] Kieboom, who — Kieboom has had a nice year as a backup catcher for us this year, but I agree that a frontline catcher is a guy that we should target and go after, because it’s a huge position defensively, first of all, it’s a guy who controls a game, and I think you saw when Wieters went down, the way the pitchers threw to the catchers was as important as any type of offense you’re getting from the catcher’s position.”
“It’s a position of need,” Rizzo continued, “... it’s a position that we’re going to have to target and go after [for] next year, and I think it’s something that’s going to really help the ballclub if we land one of those guys.”
Instead of “one of those guys” the Nationals added two catchers to the mix, signing veteran backstop Kurt Suzuki to a 2-year/$10M deal in mid-November before acquiring catcher Yan Gomes in a 3-for-1 deal that sent prospects Daniel Johnson (OF) and Andruw Monasterio (IF) and right-hander Jefry Rodriguez to the Cleveland Indians on November 30th.
“We had a lot of different options,” Rizzo explained after Suzuki and Gomes were in the fold.
“We could have went for the big free agent everyday catcher, or get a trade for a younger, more everyday type of player, and we felt that the best bang for our buck was to go after both of these guys, and we identified them early in the offseason and really focused in on these two guys specifically and went after them.”
Gomes finished the 2018 campaign with a .266/.313/.449 line, 16 home runs, 26 doubles, and 101 wRC+ in a 2.2 fWAR season, ranking 3rd among MLB catchers in Defensive Runs Saved (+4 DRS) on the year.
Suzuki put up a .271/.332/.444 line with 24 doubles, 12 home runs, and 108 wRC+ in a 2.0 fWAR campaign, finishing at -7 DRS (after a +4 DRS season in 2017).
How will the two catchers split duties behind the plate in D.C.?
“That would be a Davey thing,” Rizzo said, deferring to manager Davey Martinez, “but I think that they both should get ample time playing. We could bounce Kurt [and have] him play a little first base if he has to, but they both — Gomes is a very durable catcher, he’s played every day on a championship-caliber club, and Kurt is — they had a great platoon last year in Atlanta, so I think they’re both comfortable doing either or both ways.”
“They’re both going to split time,” Martinez said. “But we’ll get to Spring Training, and I’ll have conversations with them, but they’re both going to play a lot.
“They both bring a lot. Kurt is a good hitting catcher. Yan had a really good year last year as a catcher, but he’s a really good defensive catcher too, so I’m looking forward to just talking to them, but I think it’s going to make our pitching staff a lot better, because those two guys have been around baseball a while and caught some really good pitchers, so I’m itching to talk to them and pick their brain about how they foresee handling our pitching staff.”
Suzuki and Gomes said they hadn’t discussed playing time or plans for splitting duties with the team, but both told reporters they were ready for whatever they were asked to do.
“Speaking to my agent and speaking to [Rizzo],” Suzuki said after he signed (and before the trade for Gomes).
“[Rizzo] was really aggressive from the beginning of free agency and I kind of took to that.
“And he told my agent from Day 1 that I’m their guy. Whether I’m a guy that catches 120 games or 90 games or whatever they want me to do you know, I just told them I’ll be ready to do whatever you want and he said I’m going to play, obviously, but I just said whatever you need me to do. So whether that’s 80-90-100-120, it really doesn’t matter to me, so I’m just trying to help the team win and see how it goes.”
“We didn’t get into any specifics of anything, to be honest with you,” Gomes admitted when asked about what discussions he had with the team after the trade.
“It was really to say, ‘Welcome to the organization.’ They’re excited to have me. And that’s kind of the conversation we had. I don’t think it was the time yet to talk about that kind of stuff, but hey, I’m ready to do whatever it is to help a team win, and help the Nationals take the next step and go be World Series contenders, and whatever it is I’m ready for it, no matter where or when my name gets called.”
The additions solidified the Nationals’ catching corps for the near future with Suzuki on the two-year deal and Gomes under control for 2019 (at $7M) with club options for 2020 ($9M) and 2021 (at $11M).
While there had once again been rumors of interest in Miami Marlins’ catcher J.T. Realmuto, Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office went another direction.
Realmuto was finally dealt to Philadelphia’s Phillies in a trade that sent Philly’s top pitching prospect, Sixto Sanchez, 25-year-old catcher Jorge Alfaro, and left-hander Will Stewart to the Marlins.
Did the Nats make the right move in moving on from the possibility of acquiring Realmuto, after years of rumored interest, adding Suzuki and Gomes, and giving themselves options behind the plate? How will Martinez handle his catching corps in 2019?
Max Scherzer likes to say that pitchers and catchers usually need a half a season to get to know one another, that process starts tomorrow when pitchers and catchers report to the Nationals’ Spring Training facility in West Palm Beach, FL.