On Monday, Kurt Suzuki became the second catcher in his mid-thirties to sign with a new team this offseason. Defensive virtuoso, Jeff Mathis, signed with the Rangers last week, and in many ways, Suzuki is the anti-Mathis. Whereas Mathis maintains employment with his excellent framing and game management despite worse career offense than Zack Greinke, Suzuki uses his bat to make up for the runs he hemorrhages defensively.
Regardless of what Suzuki has done behind the plate, what he does at the plate beyond 30 has been remarkable. Suzuki never had wRC+ of 100 until 2014, his age 30 season. The past two years, he’s been among the best hitting catchers in the majors.
Highest wRC+ among catchers the past two seasons (min. 500 PA)— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) November 19, 2018
1. Buster Posey: 118
2. Wilson Ramos: 117
3. J.T. Realmuto: 116
4. Kurt Suzuki: 116
5. Yasmani Grandal: 114 https://t.co/ZXNaFuhHEu
Though he was at the bottom (or completely off) of Top 50 free agent lists, Suzuki would have been a good add for just about any team as he can complement more defensively savvy catchers.
In Atlanta, Suzuki acted as an offensive counterpart to Tyler Flowers. Flowers has hit well the past few years but is more known for his defense. In Washington, though, Suzuki might not have a strong defensive counterpart. Though he’s a good blocker, Spencer Kieboom is a middling framer as he posted -1.4 framing runs in 2018 and -4.5 framing runs in triple-A last year.
Pedro Severino, who FanGraphs lists beneath Kieboom on the depth chart, is a strong framer (8.5 framing runs in triple-A last year), but he was an even worse hitter than Mathis. He hit for just a 32 wRC+ in 213 plate appearances, and he was worth -0.8 fWAR. Severino may be more likely to stay on the taxi squad, but it’s not as if Kieboom is in another class. With Suzuki’s bat, the Nationals may feel they can sacrifice the spot in the order for Severino.
Regardless of who fills the backup role, Suzuki will take most of the at bats for the Nationals. That’s good news because the Nationals catchers were some of the worst in the majors. The only backstops who hit worse than Washington’s were the Diamondbacks, Orioles, and the World Champion Red Sox. Suzuki is certainly an upgrade. He’s better and less expensive than Matt Wieters, but one must wonder if the Nationals could have done better.
Wilson Ramos and Yasmani Grandal are still both available and each offer a happy medium between defense and offense. Ramos is a competent framer and Grandal is elite. MLB Trade Rumors even predicted that Grandal would sign with the Nationals for four years and $64 million.
The Nationals only have around $124 million on the books for next year including MLB Trade Rumors arbitration estimates, so they certainly could have afforded Grandal or Ramos. Grandal, though, had rejected the Dodgers’ qualifying offer, and the Nationals would have to forfeit their second and fifth-highest draft picks and $1 million from their international pool in order to sign him.
Ramos, though, wasn’t eligible for a qualifying offer, so he wouldn’t have cost the Nationals draft picks. They certainly could have afforded his salary. Ramos hits as well as Suzuki, and he also doesn’t give the runs back behind the plate.
It’s possible the Nationals tried to go after Grandal or Ramos but couldn’t convince either to come to Washington. They could have done worse than Suzuki, and it’s good to see that he won’t have to wait until Spring Training to find a job. But for a team that’s coming off a disappointing season and losing their franchise player, it’s an underwhelming start to the offseason.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville.