Early Friday afternoon the Nationals front office decided to upgrade the catcher position for the playoff chase by acquiring veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki and cash consideration from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for High-A catching prospect David Freitas. Jesus Flores has struggled both offensively and defensively in his new starting role since Wilson Ramos injured his knee, batting just a .167/.190/.183 in July with 18 strikeouts in 60 at-bats, and throwing out only 5 of 49 attempted baserunners this season; with this in mind, in addition to Jhonatan Solano being out indefinitely with an oblique strain (where have I heard that before?), and Sandy Leon viewed more as an occasional backup, GM Mike Rizzo decided he needed to obtain a proven starting catcher like Suzuki to allow Jesus Flores to return to his more suitable role as a reserve. Suzuki is in the 3rd year of a 4-year $16.25 million dollar contract, earning $5 million this season, $6.45 million in 2013, and includes a club option for $8.5 million in 2014, with a $650,000 buyout. According to media reports, the Athletics are paying the majority of Suzuki’s salary the rest of this season, as well as a portion of his 2013 salary.
The 28-year-old Suzuki has struggled offensively thus far in 2012, posting a .218/.250/.286 with only 1 home run in 262 at-bats, although for his career he is a .254/.311/.378 hitter with 57 home runs spanning 703 games. That said, his reputation is built on being one of the better defensive catchers in the American League the past few years owning impressive receiving skills, catch-and-throw ability, and excellent leadership qualities. Suzuki has been on fire defensively this season, throwing out 38% (23 of 60) of attempted baserunners and for his career, has thrown out an impressive 29% overall. An above-average catcher from 2007-2011, the Nationals are trying to buy-low on an outstanding defensive catcher and hoping he rediscovers his previous hitting prowess with this change of scenery.
Oakland General Manager Billy Beane seems to have developed an infatuation with Nationals catching prospects after acquiring Derek Norris last winter in the Gio Gonzalez deal and now trading for Freitas. Freitas, a 15th round pick in the 2010 draft from the University of Hawaii, is a 23-year-old catcher with a .271/.374/.407 batting line in 321 at-bats this season at High-A Potomac. A solid hitter with good on-base skills, Freitas has a chance to develop into a major league quality hitter, and although his career caught stealing percentage is an above-average 29%, his other defensive skills are rated below-average or worse. Considering the current dearth of quality catching in the major leagues, if Freitas can refine his defensive skills, a big if, he could spend some time as a bat-first catcher in the big leagues.
Although his poor 2012 batting line may not represent the improvement to the bottom of the lineup the Nationals might have been ideally looking for, Kurt Suzuki’s acquisition immediately makes the team stronger behind home plate. The numbers may not show it, but there are also reasons for optimism that he can rebound with the bat: first, the shift from an extreme pitcher’s park in Oakland to the more neutral Nationals Park should be an overall positive for his statistics, not to mention moving to the traditionally weaker National League should provide some benefit as well. Next, his numbers in July were trending upward with a .273/.273/.455 batting line with his only home run in 33 at-bats, and his career numbers in the second half of the season .251/.314/.390 are slightly better than his first half .256/.308/.368, somewhat unusual for a catcher. Finally, still only 28 and having a track record of previous success (.274/.313/.421 15 home runs in 2009, .242/.303/.366 13 home runs in 2010) makes Suzuki a wonderful candidate to flourish with this change of scenery. At worst, the Nationals have traded for a noticeably better version of Jesus Flores, protected themselves in case Wilson Ramos knee injury lingers into next season, and if Suzuki happens to rally offensively, the team secured a league average starting catcher for a decent prospect they are highly unlikely to regret trading – That sounds like the recipe for a solid, low-risk medium-reward baseball trade to me.
NatsGM Grade -> B
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