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Washington Nationals’ 2021 catching corps: Yan Gomes and Alex Avila take over in D.C.

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For the past two seasons it was Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes behind the plate in D.C., but this year it’s going to be Gomes and Alex Avila...

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Davey Martinez told Yan Gomes at the end of the 60-game 2020 campaign that he should prepare to play significantly more than he had in his first two seasons in D.C., when he and Kurt Suzuki shared the catching duties for the Nationals, starting in 220 of 222 games that the team played.

“I told him, I said, ‘You need to prepare to catch 100-110 games.’ That’s what I see for him,” Martinez told reporters in a mid-December 2020 interview.

Gomes started 90 of 162 games in 2019 and 30 of 60 in 2020’s truncated campaign.

Suzuki, after playing out the second year of the 2-year/$10M free agent deal he signed in 2018, was headed for free agency as a 37-year-old, and from the quotes Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo provided reporters, it didn’t seem likely he would be back for a fifth season in Washington (after he was acquired in a trade with Oakland and played in D.C. in 2013-14, then returned as a free agent for 2019-20).

“[Gomes] been working diligently on getting stronger, getting better. He wants to do it, he feels like he can do it. And he’s been good,” Martinez said of the 33-year-old backstop.

“Obviously we’re going to go out there and try to find another backup catcher. We have a couple young guys that are going to come to camp, you can never have enough catchers.

“It’s a tough position. But I really do feel like Yan can go out there every day and handle our pitching staff and play really well.”

“I think Yan’s capable of it,” GM Mike Rizzo said of the potential expanded role for Gomes in his own interview with the D.C. press corps this past December.

“He’s done it on championship-caliber clubs in Cleveland and with us,” Rizzo added.

“It’s such a demanding, physically taxing position that we’d certainly like to take a little bit of burden off of him. But I think he’s capable of playing 90-100 games, at least, but we’re certainly going to have to get him a complement over there.”

Martinez and Rizzo mentioned the presence of some up-and-coming catchers in their minor league system, but they were clear they needed to add a catcher who could jump right in to be a partner with their incumbent backstop.

“We’ve got a good piece there with Gomes-y,” Rizzo said.

“He’s a championship catcher. He’s part of a championship-caliber battery, and the pitchers love throwing to him. He’s a preparer, he’s a warrior and he’s a workhorse. But it’s such a demanding position, you’re a foul tip away from having to really, really scramble back there, so we’re going to keep all our options open there, but again, we like some of our young players as far as taking over that backup role in the future, but we certainly would like to get a partner to go along with Yan.”

Tres Barrera was the only catcher other than Gomes on the 40-Man roster at the time Rizzo and Martinez spoke to reporters in December (2020). Raudy Read is still in the organization, and well-regarded Nats’ prospect Israel Pineda is working his way up, though he’s relatively inexperienced (at just 20 years old), and they have added depth, with veteran Wellington Castillo signed this winter (after he signed with the Nationals last season but opted out of playing), and the club signed 2011 1st Round pick Blake Swihart (who went 26th overall to the Boston Red Sox that year) to a minor league deal.

But as far as a partner for Gomes, the Nationals went the free agent route.

Alex Avila, 34, and a veteran of 12 MLB seasons, fit the bill. An established, solid defender with some power at the plate, Avila had history with Max Scherzer from the time the two spent together in Detroit (2011-14), and also caught recently-signed left-hander Jon Lester (in 2017 in Chicago) and Patrick Corbin (in 2018 in Arizona).

He signed what is reportedly a 1-year/$1.5M free agent deal from the Nationals last week.

Avila talked about his history with his new partner, Gomes, against whom he played often while both were in the AL Central.

“We played against each other for quite a few years when he was in Cleveland and I was in Detroit,” Avila explained.

“Over the years when we were facing each other quite a bit, we got to know each other from across the diamond, so not as personal as you’d like, but I think we both had a tremendous amount of respect for each other and what we did for our teams and the way we played and I’ve always admired him and what he’s been able to do in his career. Love watching him catch, so I think just the mutual respect we have for each other will allow us to kind of hit it off on the right foot and have a nice relationship going into the season.”

The Nationals’ new catcher said he didn’t discuss his role in terms of how often he’ll play as he talked to the club about coming on board.

“It wasn’t something that me and Mike had discussed,” Avila said.

“I haven’t spoken with Davey yet. But really whenever Davey needs me in the lineup I’ll be ready to go, that’s kind of like my mindset.”

While he’s only signed for 2021 (as is Gomes), Avila told reporters he thinks he still has more left, and feels like he can keep playing beyond what will be his 13th big league campaign.

“My body feels good,” he said. “To be honest with you, after the season we had last year it feels really good. With the shortened season it was — even though it was very intense down the stretch. You don’t — the body didn’t have to play as many games as usual. My body feels great. I would love for this to be a multiple year kind of thing.

“Obviously performance dictates that, and hopefully I can perform well and be enough of a clubhouse presence that they would like to bring me back, but this year is the priority.”