The Nationals have a pitching staff that does not hold runners on base well and a catcher who is underperforming at the plate. That combination wasn’t working for general manager Mike Rizzo, who swung a trade with Oakland on Friday and picked up catcher Kurt Suzuki in return for catching prospect David Freitas.
It appears Suzuki will quickly supplant Jesus Flores, who took over the No. 1 job in May when Wilson Ramos tore his ACL. The 28-year-old has a strong reputation for handling a pitching staff and has thrown out 23 of the 60 runners who attempted to steal on him this season. That’s good for 38 percent.
And that will help because 36 of the last 37 runners who tried to steal with Flores behind the plate have done so successfully. Suzuki also has a sterling reputation handling a pitching staff – something that Nats pitcher Gio Gonzalez can attest to after pitching four seasons for the A’s.
“I think that [Suzuki is] going to take the lion’s share of the catching duties with his track record,” Rizzo said. “And his ability to handle a staff and his defensive prowess I think that he’s going to add a lot to the lineup.”
Rizzo said that his scouts believe Suzuki’s relegation to a part-time role as Oakland’s catcher was affecting him at the plate. His numbers are awful with just one home run in 262 at-bats. His OPS (.536) is the lowest among all major-league catchers with at least 200 at-bats. His batting average (.218) is a career low and his on-base percentage is .250. This is a player who in 2009 had 154 home runs, 37 doubles and a .734 OPS. He just isn’t very good offensively – though Rizzo hopes that the move to a more neutral ballpark than Oakland’s will help his numbers.
“I feel like looking down the stretch run and having more veteran presence during games and postseason…behind the dish,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I’m not saying nothing about our catching. Our catching has been outstanding. Like I’ve said before this is the best organization I’ve been in with the depth that we got behind the dish.”
But Flores’ OPS is just .586. and he has three home runs in 222 at-bats. Rookie Jhonatan Solano is hurt (oblique strain) and fellow rookie Sandy Leon is an untested, if promising, Double-A catcher. Ramos won’t be back until next season after his ACL tear. Plus, it doesn’t help that Flores has been dealing with a sore back, too.
“I think [Flores is] probably his own worst enemy because he’s not doing the things that he knows he’s really capable of doing,” Johnson said. “We’ll see how that plays out.”
Washington just wasn’t willing to go down the stretch with those three as the only options at catcher. To make room on the 40-man roster Triple-A Syracuse catcher Carlos Maldonado, who has also seen time in the majors this season with the Nats, was designated for assignment.
“Kurt gives us a veteran presence in the clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “He’s a terrific guy. I’ve known him since I scouted him at Cal-State Fullerton. So we’ve got a good book on him, we know him very, very well. He’s one of the best catch-throw defensive catchers in the game.”
And at 28, Suzuki is under contract for one more season and an option year after that. He signed a four-year, $16.25 million contract after the 2009 season. If Ramos isn’t completely ready for full-time duties next spring the Nats have another option to turn to. That, of course, seems to signal the end of Flores as a long-term catcher in the organization. He just hasn’t been the same since that serious 2009 shoulder injury that knocked him out all of that season, all of 2010 and half of 2011.
Some background: Suzuki is a native of Wailuku, HI and won the Johnny Bench Award at Fullerton as the nation’s top collegiate catcher. He was a second-round draft pick by the A’s in 2004. Suzuki’s best year was 2009 with a slash line of .274/.313/.421/.734, 15 home runs and 88 RBI. But his OPS slipped to .669 in 2010, rebounded a tick to .686 in 2011 and has finally fallen off a cliff this year. He did combine for 27 homers the previous two seasons.
Johnson actually managed Suzuki in international play when he was a catcher for Team USA during an Olympics qualifying tournament held in Cuba in 2006. Rizzo has talked with Gonzalez about his former catcher – the A’s seem to have all held him in high regard – but not since spring training. He said it’s not really fair to the player and creates unfounded rumors when a deal isn’t necessarily close to completion. The deal was discussed prior to the trade deadline, but Rizzo and Oakland general manager Billy Beane weren’t able to finish it before the July 31 deadline. Instead, Suzuki had to pass through waivers, per Major League Baseball rules. He is expected to join the club on Saturday. Oakland will pay some of Suzuki’s remaining salary, though Rizzo would not divulge exactly how much.
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