Mike Rizzo has had a limited budget this offseason. Still, he’s done a great job by filling up the roster with cheap but experienced veterans who could be used as fillers as top prospects continue to develop or even as potential trade chips if some of them have bounce-back seasons to acquire some prospects at the trade deadline to bolster a farm system that will continue to rise this year. Various reports still say that Rizzo will go after a pitcher in the free-agent market, and that might be all.
Who do They Have?
Position player-wise, the Nationals are covered in the infield and the outfield, but they should look to make some changes at the backup catcher position. Currently, the two options to back up former top prospect Keibert Ruiz are Riley Adams and Israel Pineda. They’re both young players with decent potential, but the Nationals should look to pick up a veteran backup.
Israel Pineda quickly rose through the minors this season. After he posted a .649 OPS in A+ ball in 2021, he had a .783 OPS across A+, AA, and AAA this year and made his MLB debut. A .220 OPS in 14 at-bats shows he’s not ready for the big leagues.
Riley Adams showed his potential in the last two months of 2021, hitting .268/.422/.465 in 35 games. However, he didn’t get much playing in September after Ruiz was called up. Nobody expected him to replicate his 2021 numbers with the bat in 2022, but he struggled massively in the box. He hit a measly .176/.245/.310. He still hit the ball hard, but he wasn’t getting enough barrels and had an alarming K% of 29.4. He was sent down to AAA, where he fared better with a slash line of .224/.317/.411, although not impressive.
Backup catchers aren’t supposed to have great success at the plate, but they should be stable defenders behind the plate and have the ability to handle a pitching staff. Adams and Pineda are both young, so they don’t have the experience to handle a pitching staff.
Defensively Riley Adams has struggled in the MLB. He did throw out 35% of runners in the minors but only a meager 13% at the highest level. His pop time to 2B is decent, as he ranks in the middle of the MLB, but he’s been in the bottom 10% at framing. Pineda has done a great job throwing runners out in the minors at a 41% due to his strong arm, but he still needs work on framing and pitch receiving.
Adams and Pineda aren’t ready for the big leagues, so having a veteran backup can be valuable to the Nationals. This young and struggling pitching staff gave up the second most runs, most home runs, fifth most walks, and was last in starting pitching ERA last year. A veteran backup can help guide the National’s pitching staff and improve their performance. Even if the veteran isn’t great defensively and/or offensively, they can still provide leadership and guidance for pitchers and mentor a young Keibert Ruiz. This has been seen before on this team when the great Ivan Rodriguez was the backup for a young Wilson Ramos in 2011, who turned out to be a successful catcher for the Nationals and several other teams.
Ruiz would’ve had some difficulty managing a young and mediocre pitching staff in his first full season, and that could’ve impacted his offensive performance, which was still solid (95 OPS+), but it could’ve been better. A veteran backup will guide Ruiz in handling a pitching staff and allow him to improve on other aspects of his game.
Riley Adams will be benefitted because his best fit is at 1B/DH due to his defensive struggles. He’s shown the ability to hit the ball hard so he could focus on his hitting by getting everyday at-bats as a 1B/DH in AAA. Pineda has shown potential with bat and glove, but playing every 4th or 5th game won’t help with his development. It’s best to have him play every day in AAA this season to let him continue his development and to see if he could be the real deal. He could end up being a trade chip for the Nationals or transition into 1B/DH if he continues to hit well because Ruiz will likely be behind the plate for years to come.
Who Should They go After?
The market for catchers may be a bit barren this offseason, but there are still some solid options for the backup spot.
Roberto Perez is the best option, and he’s the best defensive catcher left on the market because he’s had a positive dWAR every season and thrown out 39% of baserunners. He’s been to the playoffs four times with the then-named Cleveland Indians and played in the 2016 World Series. That’s some valuable experience right there.
Kevin Plawecki, Austin Romine, and Robinson Chirinos are the other options that Mike Rizzo should consider. None of them are great defenders, but they have 30 years of experience amongst themselves, with nine postseason appearances. Plawecki helped the Mets get into the playoffs in 2015-16 after an almost decade-long drought, Romine was a part of the Baby Bombers in the Bronx from 2017-19, and Chirinos helped the Orioles pitching staff make great leaps last year. Any of these veterans should help Ruiz and the pitchers on the Nationals improve.
Mike Rizzo’s budget is small, and he’s probably reached the limit, but he should go out and grab one of the veteran catchers mentioned. It will tremendously help the Nationals improve and take them a step forward in their second full season of the rebuild.