Spring Training Preview, Part I: Catchers
by Mike Feigen
Over each of the next five weeks, we’ll break down the entire Nationals roster as the team prepares to take the field in Viera, Fla., to get to work on defending their NL East Division title. Beginning this week with catchers, we will look at the stockpile of talent acquired and developed by President of Baseball Operations & General Manager Mike Rizzo, 2014 NL Manager of the Year Matt Williams and their respective staffs.
We kick things off this week with catchers, including the two likely members of the Opening Day roster, a reliable backup and a recent addition to the 40-man roster.
2014 Season Totals: .267/.299/.399, 93 wRC+, 4.7% BB rate, 15.8% K rate, 2.0 fWAR in 361 PA
2015 Steamer Projection: .269/.316/.438, 109 wRC+, 6.3% BB rate, 14.9% K rate, 3.0 fWAR in 428 PA
When we last saw Wilson Ramos in October, he had just completed all 44 defensive innings behind the plate during the Nationals’ four-game NLDS run against the San Francisco Giants. The winner of the Tony Conigliaro Award for spirit, determination and courage also caught 87 games during the regular season, his most games caught since 2011.
At the plate, “The Buffalo” belted 11 home runs and added 47 runs batted in on the year, solid numbers despite recovering from a hamate bone fracture suffered on Opening Day against the Mets and a hamstring strain in mid-June. Once his hand strength returned, so did his bat; Ramos slashed .196/.254/.250 with no home runs in his first 15 games of the season, then hit .319/.350/.490 with nine long balls over his next 52 games through late August.
Ramos also benefited from Williams’ emphasis on defending the running game, posting a career high 38 percent caught stealing rate (18-of-48), after nabbing just 25 percent (18-of-71) of runners the previous two years combined. He also was credited with the first four pickoffs of his career.
Using Steamer projections (located on FanGraphs.com), the 27-year-old backstop is due for a strong season at the plate, in which he should draw a few more walks and harness some of his immense power. Should that occur, it would go a long ways toward the Nationals finding themselves back in the postseason for the third time in four years.
2014 Season Totals: .234/.287/.304, 66 wRC+, 6.5% BB rate, 26.5% K rate, 0.6 fWAR in 230 PA
2015 Steamer Proj.: .234/.303/.340, 81 wRC+, 8.6% BB rate, 23.1% K rate, 0.2 fWAR in 116 PA
In his first season, Jose Lobaton’s influence on the Nationals pitching staff was undeniable. The pitch-framing savant helped the Nationals to a 38-20 record during his 58 starts, including an 11-0 mark when Doug Fister was on the mound.
Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays at the start of Spring Training, Lobaton got off to a bit of a slow start at the plate before finishing with a .305 batting average in August and September. He belted two home runs during the season, including a line drive shot into the bullpen to kick start an April 23 walk-off rally against the Los Angeles Angels.
Although Steamer’s projections have Lobaton’s plate appearances dipping significantly in 2015, the switch-hitter should have plenty of opportunities to spell Ramos to keep his fellow countryman’s legs fresh throughout the year.
2014 Season Totals: .156/.229/.219, 27 wRC+, 8.6% BB rate, 28.6% K rate, 0.0 fWAR in 70 PA
2015 Steamer Proj.: .213/.282/.309, 66 wRC+, 8.3% BB rate, 20.1% K rate, 0.1 fWAR in 91 PA
Like Lobaton, Sandy Leon is a switch-hitting catcher with a strong defensive reputation. And while the 30-year-old Lobaton likely has the 25-year-old Leon blocked for the time being, the Nationals have used a No. 3 catcher on multiple occasions during the past three seasons.
Leon collected his first Major League home run on April 14 at cavernous Marlins Park in Miami, demonstrating good pop at the plate. He also has shown a tremendous eye throughout his Minor League career, including walk rates of 13.0 percent at Double-A in 2013 and 11.9 percent at Triple-A this past season.
Should he return to Syracuse this upcoming season, Leon could be tasked with the continuing development of an excellent Triple-A pitching staff featuring the likes of A.J. Cole, Taylor Jordan, Taylor Hill and Blake Treinen, depending on who makes the Major League club out of Spring Training.
2014 Season Totals: .211/.250/.368, 67 wRC+, 5.0% BB rate, 25.0% K rate, 0.1 fWAR in 20 PA
2015 Steamer Proj.: .233/.299/.360, 83 wRC+, 7.7% BB rate, 20.8% K rate, 0.0 fWAR in 1 PA
With the departure of Minor League catcher Jhonatan Solano following the 2014 season, the Nationals and Red Sox completed a deal that sent left-handed pitcher Danny Rosenbaum to the Red Sox and 28-year-old catcher Dan Butler to the Nationals.
In addition to having solid defensive skills, Butler showed flashes of power during his time in Boston’s organization, clubbing 14 home runs in 84 games for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2013, while also posting a .350 on base percentage and a .479 slugging percentage.
Butler made his Major League debut at the tail end of the 2014 season, batting 4-for-19 at the plate with three doubles and two runs batted in for the Red Sox. While Steamer only projects him for one plate appearance in 2015, his projected rate stats are in line with both Lobaton and Leon, giving the Nationals flexibility should they need to use a third or fourth catcher.