How a veteran catcher could help the Nationals


At this point of the offseason, the Washington Nationals have more certainties than question marks when it comes to a potential Opening Day roster. Sure, Carter Kieboom remains an unknown, as does who will fill out a bullpen headed by Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey and Carl Edwards Jr. But go through the list of players — pitchers, catchers, infielders, outfielders — and there is a baseball team, whether you believe that baseball team will win many games.

And so in the weeks before spring training, the Nationals are more likely to add on the margins, like they have all winter, than improve in substantial ways. Depth starters are always a necessity. Relievers, too. Then there’s one subtler addition that could help mold their young core in a critical development year.

Washington could consider adding a veteran backup catcher.

Would a signing of this sort make or break the season? Hardly. But with 24-year-old catcher Keibert Ruiz entering his second full year — and with Josiah Gray (25), Cade Cavalli (24) and MacKenzie Gore (23) expected to be in the rotation — an experienced catcher could help them grow, even if, at the very least, one was signed on a minors deal and around for the six weeks of spring training.

Behind Ruiz, the Nationals have Riley Adams (26) and Israel Pineda (22) on the 40-man roster. Behind them, Drew Millas, a 25-year-old switch-hitter, has caught the attention of Manager Dave Martinez. An important caveat here, as with any musings on potential signings, is that the Nationals have already expended most of a very tight budget on Jeimer Candelario, Trevor Williams, Dominic Smith and Corey Dickerson. But if they did consider another catcher, some options include Kevin Plawecki, Robinson Chirinos or Roberto Perez.

Plawecki, 31, has played in parts of eight seasons, often serving as a stopgap and clubhouse vibes guy. Perez, 34, missed most of last year after undergoing season-ending hamstring surgery in May. Chirinos is 39 and spent 2022 with the Baltimore Orioles, reaching 10 years of major league service in September. On Wednesday, the Texas Rangers announced that they signed 33-year-old catcher Sandy León to a minor league deal. And on Monday, the Red Sox signed 29-year-old catcher Jorge Alfaro to a minors deal, further showing that the overall demand for this type of player might be thinning out. According to MassLive, Alfaro will earn a base salary of $2 million if he makes the majors.

If the Nationals added a mid- or late-career catcher on a similar deal, he could teach and push Adams and Pineda in the spring, then perhaps crack the Opening Day roster alongside Ruiz and an impressionable pitching staff. Two members of the organization endorsed the idea, though each noted how catching and strategy coach Henry Blanco — once a journeyman catcher himself — serves a similar purpose and has been great with Ruiz in particular. A teammate is different from a coach, though, and could be an extension of Blanco when it comes to game-calling and working with pitchers. At the end of the 2021 season, for example, Adams went on and on about the influence of veteran Alex Avila, who was about to retire.

After a strong finish to that year, Adams struggled in sporadic chances last season, finishing with a .245 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage in 155 plate appearances. Pineda debuted ahead of schedule in September, only made four starts and should have every shot to be part of Washington’s future. Bringing on a veteran, then, is much less a pressing need than something that could benefit a good portion of the budding core (Ruiz, Gore, Cavalli, Gray and Harvey).

Now, if the Nationals stand pat with what they have, the year will be an important test for Adams, Pineda and maybe even Millas, who should start in the upper levels of the minors. There’s both immediate and long-term opportunity to complement Ruiz, who arrived as the centerpiece of the return from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the trade for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Adams has the inside track because of his 95 career appearances. Pineda, having hit 16 homers in 2022, holds intriguing upside.

But last April, the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote that Chirinos, signed to help break top prospect Adley Rutschman into the majors, “quickly ingratiated himself with the team’s pitchers, coaches and analytics staff.” That’s the crux of the idea here — and something the Nationals could give a look.

Notes: Baseball America put four Nationals prospect in its latest top 100. James Wood (20 years old, outfielder) checked in at No. 11, Robert Hassell III at No. 57, Elijah Green (19, outfielder) at No. 58 and Cavalli at 61. The site also noted that Brady House (19, infielder), Jarlin Susana (18, right-handed pitcher) and Cristhian Vaquero (18, outfielder) fell just outside of the list. …

Delino DeShields and Cody Ransom have joined Washington’s player development staff, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. DeShields, 54 and most recently the Cincinnati Reds’ first base coach, will manage the Class AA Harrisburg Senators, replacing Tripp Keister. Ransom, a major league infielder for 11 seasons, will be the new infield coordinator, replacing José Alguacil after he left to join the Kansas City Royals’ major league staff. Ransom was previously a minor league coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Nationals have yet to announce their full PD staff for 2023.

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