The Nats Need a Catcher
With everything going on around the Nationals recently you can be excused for not noticing their biggest problem. To start, being 13.5 games up in the division does not call for close analysis of a team. Add on a whole host of injuries and the most obvious problem, the bullpen, being solved it’s easy to miss. But the Nationals are getting almost unbelievably bad production from their catchers and it’s not looking like it will get better any time soon.
Yes, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Trea Turner and Jayson Werth all being on the disabled list is a problem. But all four are expected to be back come playoff time, with most having plenty of time beforehand to prepare. The Nationals injury issues appear to be resolving themselves.
However, the catcher problem won’t resolve itself. Maybe the hot April and big hits with runners in scoring position have kept you off the trail, but Matt Wieters is one of the worst position players in baseball. Among the 304 players with at least 200 plate appearances, Wieters ranks 280th in wRC+ at 67, 33 percentage points below league average. By fWAR he’s 31st among catchers at 0.4 wins, which is notable considering there are only 30 MLB teams. And despite the good caught stealing numbers we can’t consider Wieters a defensive-first catcher where the bat doesn’t matter, because he ranks 89th among catchers in Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs at -9.2 runs. By any measure Wieters has been absolutely terrible.
And yet Wieters continues getting the bulk of the Nats' innings at catcher because somehow his backup, Jose Lobaton, is even worse. Lobaton is a proud owner of a 30 wRC+. Yes, that’s right, a 30 wRC+. That’s 70 percentage points worse than league average. Among Nationals hitters that slots in right behind Max Scherzer and his 43 wRC+. Not to say Lobaton has ever been much of a hitter for the Nats. In his previous three years he’s had a wRC+ of 65, 57 and 84. But 30 represents a whole new level of terrible. To top it off, in those four years his framing runs have gone from 2.3 to 4.5 to 2.4 and now 0.0. As in, the amount of value Jose Lobaton brings to a baseball team on the field. Lobaton is a great guy, who gets along in the clubhouse well, hit a great home run in the NLDS last year and makes a good pair of Gatorade glasses, but he shouldn’t be on the 25 man roster.
The Nats could turn to Pedro Severino, but he won’t be any help at the plate where he has a 66 wRC+ in AAA. The Nats have to turn to outside help and for that we look to the August waiver wire. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim at catcher. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances catcher has the second lowest percentage of hitters with a wRC+ of 100 or better at 40.5 percent (shortstops are the worst at 27.9 percent). So in the limited range of catchers who can hit well, but are also likely available to be traded, are not currently injured and aren’t on the Orioles we’re left with just our old friend Kurt Suzuki who is currently backing up for the Atlanta Braves.
Suzuki has been having a huge season at the plate this year with a 114 wRC+ in 207 plate appearances, ranking seventh among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances. OK, he likely won’t continue hitting that well, but his Fangraphs rest of season projection of an 87 wRC+ is still way better than what the Nats have now. Suzuki is also a known figure in the clubhouse with a couple good friends like Gio Gonzalez on the team, so he'll fit in easily. His framing numbers aren’t great, checking in at -1.4 runs, but it’s still better than Wieters. He’s only signed for one year at $1.5 million meaning it’s only hundreds of thousands the Nats will have to add to the payroll, plenty cheap for the Lerners.
Suzuki would have to clear revocable trade waivers first and we haven’t heard if he has. However, the Braves should definitely be placing him and it would be surprising if he was claimed. As to whether the Braves will trade within the division, it shouldn’t be a problem considering they’re not even trying to win this division for at least two more years and there’s no obvious enmity between the two teams.
If the Nats believe a huge bounce back is coming for Wieters they don’t have to bench him yet. But at the very least they should have a real insurance policy behind him. Suzuki is the back up for the Braves so he should be comfortable with that role here too. While we’re confident the Nats injury issues won’t affect the playoffs, it’s best not to go in with one hand tied behind your back. The Nats have already made three great low rent moves for Doolittle and Madson, Kintzler and Kendrick. Let’s make it 4 for 4.