VIERA, FLA. -- The Nationals opened spring training on Thursday by trading right-handed pitching prospect Nathan Karns to the Tampa Bay Rays for reserve catcher Jose Lobaton.
Lobaton fills a need for Washington, which was going to enter the season with limited experience behind starting catcher Wilson Ramos. And given Ramos' injury history in recent years – he has yet to top 113 games in any of his four big-league seasons and played in 103 combined in 2012 and 2013 - the team wanted to add a player who could fill in for an extended period of time.
General manager Mike Rizzo was not immediately available for comment and the team had yet to confirm the deal as of early Thursday afternoon. It is possible there are more pieces returning from Tampa Bay.
Lobaton, 29, appeared in 100 games last season for Tampa Bay with 277 at-bats. He had seven home runs and 32 RBI with an OPS of .714. The catching stats aren't as promising, however. Lobaton threw out just 10 of 73 runners who attempted to steal on him last season, an abysmal rate of 14 percent. That doesn't bode well with a pitching staff that struggles to hold runners on base in the first place. He also was on the field for 36 wild pitches and two passed balls.
But Lobaton is insurance for Ramos, not a primary catcher. That's a ratio Washington will live with in return for a decent bat at a position where there are few, if any, available. It doesn't hurt that Lobaton and Ramos have a history, too.
"We played together in Venezuela in the 2010 season during the playoffs when I played with Caracas team over there," Ramos said. "He's a good guy. Good teammate. Good catcher, too. Pretty good tools. Hits pretty good. Good behind the plate, too. So it's good."
Karns, 26, was a success story as a prospect after being drafted in the 12th round in 2009 by the Nats. He was primarily a starter in the minors. Last year at Double-A Harrisburg, Karns was 10-6 with a 3.26 ERA in 132 2/3 innings. He averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He walked 48 batters to 155 strikeouts and was in line to make more appearances in Washington this season.
"Rizzo told me the deal, he just couldn't pass up on it," Karns said. "I can understand that from a business point. He has a job to do. I have a job to do. There's no bad feelings. It's just business."
Shortly after that morning conversation with Rizzo, Karns was taking his equipment out of his locker and tossing it into a black trash bag. Teammates came and offered hugs, a smile, congratulations. Karns is heading to an organization that is a perennial playoff contender, after all. He was still waiting to hear from the Rays on when they want him to show up at their training complex in Port Charlotte across the state.
"I'm very lucky to still have a job. I'm glad I'm still able to play," Karns said. "And I'm looking forward to playing in Tampa. I'm still trying to swallow the whole pill right now. It'll probably hit me as I leave this complex, but I'm happy with all the time I've had here since 2009. Now, onto the next."
Last year Karns made his big-league debut and started three games for the Nats (0-1, 7.50 ERA). Baseball America ranked Karns as Washington's ninth-best prospect in its system for 2014. He was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2012 after a 2.17 ERA in stints at low-A Hagerstown and single-A Potomac.
"I don't like trades. It's hard for the people when you play a lot, a lot of years with a team," Ramos said. "It's hard when you get traded. Same with me when I play with Minnesota. I get traded, I was excited because I get an opportunity to play here in the big leagues. So sometimes you feel a little bit sad, but it's good for the future. Those guys need to play in the big leagues, and they get more of an opportunity."
The trade for Lobaton does leave a few players in camp in limbo now. Veteran Chris Snyder and catchers Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano were all hoping to compete for the backup catcher spot behind Ramos. That doesn't look likely for any of them now.
Meanwhile, the Nats also received pitching prospect Felipe Rivero, 22, a left-handed starter ranked No. 17 in the Tampa Bay system by Baseball America. And Tampa Bay sent over outfielder Drew Vettleson, 22.
Rivero started 23 of 25 games for Single-A Charlotte last season and had a 3.40 ERA. Rivero threw 127 innings. He was solid the year before in the low-A Midwest League, too, with a 3.41 ERA in 21 starts.
Vettleson was chosen in the supplemental round of the 2010 draft by the Rays, 42nd overall. He had a .718 OPS at low-A Charlotte last season in 467 at-bats. He did register 13 assists playing in right field and center field and he has 45 stolen bases in three pro seasons.
"The other parts of this trade, to me, really added to the value of the trade," Rizzo said. "Felipe Rivero, we’ve got very, very strong reports on him. He’s pitched at 21 years old in the Florida State League, throws 95, 96, he can spin the breaking ball and he’s got a huge upside. And Vettleson is, again, a 21-year-old outfielder with a cannon for an arm, put up very good numbers in a tough, accelerated, high-A level at 21 years old."
Also on Thursday, Washington also placed right-handed reliever Erik Davis on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow sprain. The team is at the maximum 40 players on its roster with Karns and Lobaton swapping places and Rivero taking Davis' spot.
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