As things stand right now, the Nationals are clear favorites to win the NL East pennant once again in 2018. Fangraphs projects that their current roster would win about 91 games in the coming season, and sees all four of its division rivals as sub-.500 teams. That’s great for the Nats, but likely doesn’t mean much to its fan base at this point, who have seen their home team clinch the division in four of the past six seasons (and the NL’s best record in two of them) only to lose in the NLDS. For a team that’s set to lose Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez to free agency next winter, there seems to be some pressure to push for a World Series Title while they still have the pieces to do so.
While the overall look of Washington’s roster is fantastic, they have a gaping hole at the catcher position, as MLBTR’s own Jeff Todd examined back in October. The situation remains the same; Matt Wieters performed below replacement level in 2017, and at this point he can’t be counted on to provide much value. Pedro Severino hasn’t yet done anything to convince the club that he’s ready to produce against big-league pitching. By finding a catching upgrade, the team could improve its lineup considerably and thereby improve its chances to make a deep postseason run. That being said, the market has shifted a bit since Todd’s initial assessment.
First off, it’s somewhat surprising that the Nationals haven’t addressed their need already. It’s been clear since the beginning of the offseason. In addition to our own post on the matter, the baseball community has seen Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs examine the situation in detail back at the beginning of December.
Of course, it’s not exactly a quick-fix situation. The best catching option on the market at the outset of the winter was Jonathan Lucroy, who isn’t without his own set of question marks. Welington Castillo was scooped up by the White Sox by beginning of December, taking away another potential fit. And it’s not as though MLB teams will freely trade talented catchers; a premium position comes at a premium rate. Acquiring a catcher on the trade market without diminishing some other area of the major league roster would be a difficult task to accomplish.
The Nationals have been connected to a few players throughout the offseason already, but they’ve got fairly limited resources to make such an acquisition. They’re already above the luxury tax threshold, so an addition on the free market will technically cost 130% of whatever he signs for; that dramatically reduces the cost-effectiveness of that avenue. And the team seems likely to hang onto top prospects Victor Robles and Juan Soto due to their immense values. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the options available…
Jonathan Lucroy: As recently as the first half of last season, Lucroy was one of the top catchers in the game. He posted a .292/.355/.500 slash line with 24 home runs during a 2016 campaign split between the Brewers and Rangers. But his power fell off significantly last season, which led him to put up one of the worst fWAR totals of his career (1.2). Lucroy managed to hit only six homers despite a notoriously homer-happy trend throughout the league and a significant number of plate appearances in Coors Field.
Due to his steep offensive drop-off and an equally stark decline in pitch-framing skills, Lucroy will probably only require a one- or two-year contract. But he’s no guarantee to provide value even on the two-year, $24MM deal that MLBTR predicted for him at the outset of the winter, and it’s not even a certainty that he’ll provide enough of an upgrade over Wieters to justify an eight-figure commitment with a 30% surcharge stemming luxury tax considerations.
Alex Avila: The soon-to-be 31-year-old Avila started off hot with the Tigers last year, but cooled down after being traded to the Cubs midseason. Still, he maintained a .369 on-base across 112 plate appearances even after the trade. The Nats have already been connected to Avila this offseason. He could be had at very low price, and would therefore be a low-risk signing for the club.
The biggest issue with entertaining Avila as a serious option is the fact that he probably can’t be counted upon to take a significant workload behind the plate. The veteran hasn’t caught more than 650 innings in any of the past three seasons, meaning he might not provide the type of upgrade the Nationals need.
J.T. Realmuto: As Todd pointed out three months ago, this is a fairly obvious match. The fit only became stronger in theory when the Marlins sold off Giancarlo Stanton, then Dee Gordon, later Marcell Ozuna and most recently Christian Yelich. As things stand at the present moment, the Nationals are said to be the organization that is “most heavily engaged” in talks with Miami concerning their catcher. While their reported unwillingness to include Robles or Soto would seem a significant roadblock on the surface, it’s looking as though the Fish might just be willing to settle for a package comprised of other assets.
Yasmani Grandal: If the 2017 playoffs are to be seen as any indication, Austin Barnes has usurped the starting job from Grandal, leaving the veteran switch-hitter destined to serve in a backup role for 2018. He’s set to earn $7.9MM after avoiding arbitration with the Dodgers, and will become a free agent following the season. The 2010 first-rounder has averaged over 2.5 fWAR across the past three seasons, meaning he could prove an excellent upgrade for the Nats at a far cheaper cost than someone like Realmuto.
Yan Gomes/Roberto Perez: The two Tribe backstops have been steady if unimpressive in recent years, and each can be controlled for at least three more seasons. Both are stellar defensive players with penchants for throwing out a remarkable percentage of opposing base-stealers, and each would be a clear upgrade over Wieters. Trading either player to the Nationals would pave the way for top prospect Francisco Mejia to crack the big league roster, though the Indians may perhaps prefer to hold him at Triple-A for a while due to service time considerations and/or need for further seasoning.
Francisco Mejia: Mejia gets his own paragraph due to the considerably different circumstances surrounding his hypothetical trade candidacy. Being that he’s blocked by Gomes and Perez at the MLB level, the Tribe could perhaps be willing to part with him. The logic of this match declines from there, however, as it’s difficult to imagine what the Nationals could (or would) possibly offer to improve Cleveland’s shot at a World Series title in 2018.
James McCann: The rebuilding Tigers don’t seem likely to be competitive in any of the next three seasons, meaning McCann will probably be on the move sooner or later. Though he’s impressive defensively, McCann’s bat has proved below-average across 1,201 big league plate appearances. That could (in theory) make him more affordable than other trade options while still offering an upgrade over Washington’s in-house options.