As pitchers and catchers reported to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida today, the Washington Nationals made a move that left them with one more catcher, and one fewer pitcher. The Nationals made a deal to acquire catcher Jose Lobaton, from the Tampa Bay Rays, in exchange for right-handed pitching prospect Nathan Karns.
One of the Nationals’ biggest needs at this point in the offseason was a backup catcher for Wilson Ramos, and Lobaton is well-suited to fill that position. With Ramos’ injury history, the Nationals felt the need to acquire a backup catcher they could trust in the event of an injury, and Lobaton has far more of a track record of success than the Nationals’ internal options, Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. In 100 games last year that included 76 starts behind the plate, Lobaton hit .249/.320/.394, good for a .714 OPS and league-average 100 OPS+. And while this was the 29-year old Lobaton’s first year of big league offensive success, he hit well in the minor leagues, compiling a .751 OPS in 10 minor league seasons. Lobaton can step in for Ramos on occasion without a serious loss of offensive production (especially against righties, against whom Lobaton had a .744 OPS last year, comparable with Ramos’ career .760 mark), and could conceivably take over if Ramos went down.
While the Nationals get a valuable piece in Lobaton, they also lose one in Karns. And the Rays, who had a logjam at catcher (with Lobaton, Jose Molina, and the newly acquired Ryan Hanigan all vying for playing time), must be thrilled with receiving a player of Karns’ caliber for what amounted for them to spare parts. Karns, the ninth-best prospect in the Nationals’ system according to Baseball America, has impressive stuff and the stats to match it, with a minor league strikeout rate of 10.7 batters pr nine innings. He struggled in a 12-inning stint for the big club last season, but there were numerous positive signs from his three appearances, including 11 strikeouts in those 12 innings.
But Karns is far from the perfect prospect. He has a long history of injuries, including major shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2010 season. Because of the surgery, Karns got a very late start on his professional career, and is already 26 years old, with only 316 professional innings under his belt.
Perhaps most importantly, the Nationals don’t seem to have room for Karns in their starting rotation, in either the present or the future. The Nationals have at least seven starters — Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, and Taylor Jordan — who both sit above Karns on the depth chart, and are under contract for at least the next two seasons. While added pitching depth is never a bad thing, odds are that Karns will not see big league action as a starter any time soon. And by the time there is an open spot in the Nationals’ rotation, Karns will be 28 years old, and the next wave of prospects (Lucas Giolito, AJ Cole and the like), will be ready for the big leagues.
Karns is a talented arm, and for the Rays, turning a backup catcher into a talented young arm is the type of deal that has made them so successful in their small market (additionally, the Nationals might or might not be getting two other players in the deal). But a Nationals team in position to win now has to be willing to pay a big price to fill the small holes that could be the difference between championship and disappointment.
UPDATE: According to Adam Kilgore, the Nationals are receiving two prospects from the Rays in the deal, both of whom are in the top 30 in the Rays’ system. And according to SBNation’s Chris Cotillo, one of them is left-handed pitcher Felipe Rivero. Rivero, the 20th-best prospect in the Rays’ system after the 2012 season, put together a strong season at high-A Charlotte, posting a 3.40 ERA in 127 innings, though with less-than-impressive strikeout totals (only 6.4 per nine innings). The 22-year old Venezuelan has a fastball that tops out at 94 MPH, with a a strong curveball and an improving changeup (scouting report via this website).
UPDATE II: The deal is now official:
In addition to Lobaton and Rivero, the Nationals receive 22-year old minor league outfielder Drew Vettleson. Vettleson, drafted 42nd overall in the 2010 draft (as compensation for the loss of catcher Gregg Zaun), was rated by Baseball America as the 9th best prospect in the Rays system in 2010 and 2011, and as the 11th best after the 2012 season. He hits from the left side and throws from the right, although in high school, he showed the ability to pitch with both arms. Vettleson had something of a down year in 2013; his power dropped off from the previous two years, leaving him with a respectable but unspectacular .274/.331/.388 triple-slash at High-A Charlotte.