February 14, 2014
Nationals Catch a Ray
Nathan Karns is a big power pitcher who made his MLB debut in 2013 with Washington. He is an older prospect, having been a college sign who missed his first full season after shoulder surgery. In two full pro seasons he has improved the control issues that plagued him in college, and has moved quickly through the minors. Karns features two plus pitches: a fastball that sits in the 92-95 mph range, and a hard downer curveball that is a true swing-and-miss pitch. His lack of a strong third pitch and iffy command will keep him as a mid-to-end-rotation starter. Still, he is major-league ready and adds starting depth for the Rays, who can use him as insurance for Jeremy Hellickson. —Steffan Segui
Acquired C-S Jose Lobaton, LHP Felipe Rivero, and OF-L Drew Vettleson from the Rays in exchange for RHP Nathan Karns. [2/13]
Andrew Friedman's motivation for moving Lobaton was simple: he had no choice. Friedman made multi-year commitments to Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan earlier in the winter, and couldn't option Lobaton to the minors without submitting the 29-year-old to waivers; as a result, he had to choose between trading the odd-man out now or before camp ended. Rather than risk Lobaton getting hurt during the exhibition season, Friedman consummated a trade with the Nationals on reporting day—and in the process added two prospects to sweeten the return.
Mike Rizzo's incentive for agreeing to this (seemingly even) deal is just as straightforward. Wilson Ramos has missed at least 60 days due to injury in each of the past two seasons, and last year his replacements hit .210/.269/.288 in more than 300 plate appearances. For a team with contention hopes, an upgrade was needed. Rizzo pursued Molina, but the veteran backstop opted to return to the Rays. So Rizzo did the next best thing and acquired Molina's backup of the last two years.
Lobaton is a pure switch-hitter in the sense that he lacks a perceptible platoon split. The same steadiness applies to the rest of his offensive skills: he's neither good nor poor at any one thing. Instead he's so-so throughout. He won't hit for a high average, but he'll take enough walks and hit enough doubles to be a tolerable hitter for the position. To wit, PECOTA projects him for a .250 True Average, which is a few points below last year's league average for the position (.257).
Behind the plate, Lobaton was noticeably more active than Molina. Unfortunately, he pales in comparison to the veteran across the other defensive aspects. Some of the blame for his 14 percent caught stealing rate goes to Tampa Bay's staff, yet Molina managed to post a better-than-average kill rate with the same pitchers. Lobaton appeared to be an average receiver, by our numbers and the eye test, and he could stand to improve on the intangible aspects of catching, like game-calling and staff-handling. Still, the Nationals aren't expecting a whiz here. They just want a competent backup who can stand in if Ramos gets hurt. Lobaton serves the role. —R.J. Anderson
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson