The Washington Nationals bolstered their inexperienced catching corps Friday afternoon, trading for Oakland Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki in exchange for Single-A catcher David Freitas. Suzuki is expected to become the team’s everyday catcher.
The 28-year-old Suzuki immediately gives the Nationals experience and veteran leadership behind the plate as they make their stretch run for the playoffs. He was a target of the Nationals before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, but the two sides couldn’t strike a deal until after that day had passed. Suzuki cleared waivers on Friday morning, at which point Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and A’s GM Billy Beane completed the swap.
“He’s one of the best catch-and-throw defensive catchers in the game,” said Rizzo, who’s scouted Suzuki since he was at Cal State Fullerton. “I think he’s going to take the lion’s share of the catching duties, and with his track record, his ability to handle a staff and his defensive prowess, he’s going to add a lot to the lineup.”
Suzuki, who is not expected to report to the Nationals until Saturday at the earliest, is hitting .218 with 16 extra-base hits (15 doubles, one home run) in 75 games. He has roughly $1.6 million remaining on his contract for this season, as well as a $6.45 million salary in 2013 and an $8.5 million option for 2014 that vests and increases to $9.5 million if he starts at least 113 games in the 2013 season. Rizzo said the A’s are sending cash to the Nationals in the deal to help offset some of that cost.
A starter for the majority of his career, Suzuki has shared time this year with former Nationals prospect Derek Norris (sent to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade this past offseason) and Rizzo pointed to that lost playing time as one reason for his career-low offensive numbers. In his first five major league seasons, Suzuki was a .258 hitter who averaged 11 homers and over 55 RBI per season.
He is also coming off a strong month after hitting .273 in July with a .455 slugging percentage.
But his true value comes behind the plate, as he is considered a superb game caller and defensive catcher. Suzuki, who caught Gonzalez in years past, has thrown out 38 percent of attempted base stealers this season — the Nats have the second-worst mark at 15 percent — and his work with an Oakland staff that is consistently impressive speaks for itself.
The A’s, surprise contenders, have the best staff ERA in the American League (3.44). The Nationals have the best mark in all of the majors.
“He’s got a great baseball I.Q., and he’s known in the industry as a great game caller, great handler of a staff and he’s much more satisfied with his pitching staff pitching well than he is getting his offensive numbers,” Rizzo said. “He’s a guy who can mentor the young guys, but who we can put in the lineup and count on to be the guy for us in the near future.”
The Nationals’ catching corps has been hit hard this season after Wilson Ramos tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee in the middle of May. Jesus Flores has been relied on heavily, starting 60 games, and his offense has lagged lately. Since July 1, Flores is hitting just .159 with just one extra-base hit, a double.
“Flo’s still having some problems,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He’s not back to where he was a couple years ago. I think Flo is probably his own worst enemy, because he’s not doing the things he knows he’s capable of doing. We’ll see how that plays out.”
Johnson reiterated that he still views the Nationals as having more depth at the catching position than any other team he’s worked with, but as the team prepares for a playoff push, they needed someone with a steadier hand to guide them.
“I feel like looking down the stretch run and in the postseason, having more veteran presence behind the dish [was important],” Johnson said. “When Mike brought it up to me that Oakland would move Suzuki, I said, ‘Man, that would definitely bolster our catching corps.’”
Doctors have told the Nationals and Ramos that they expect the 24-year-old to be ready by spring training, but the move for Suzuki assures that he won’t be rushed back .
“We’re going to have two pretty good catchers when Ramos gets healthy at the beginning of spring training,” Rizzo said. “And we’ll have a veteran presence behind a good, young player.
“[Suzuki] gives us another top major league-caliber catcher. Read into that what you want. He’s a good option for us in the major leagues. Ramos, we feel, is a great young catcher and he gives us some insurance that we’re going to have a top flight guy there.”
Freitas, a 15th-round selection in the 2010 draft, was highly regarded within the organization, but the Nationals viewed catcher as the one position they were willing to deal from in order to strengthen their major league team. They were not willing to part with any of their left-handed-hitting prospects or any of their top pitching prospects. Freitas, a California native, has moved up one level each year he’s been in the system. He was hitting .271 with a .374 on-base percentage and .407 slugging percentage with Single-A Potomac this season.
The Nationals have not announced their corresponding 25-man roster move, but Johnson said it was “logical” to think that Sandy Leon would be optioned back to the minor leagues. The team designated catcher Carlos Maldonado for assignment in order to clear room on the 40-man roster for Suzuki.