Pitchers and catchers report for the Tampa Bay Rays in just three days, but the Rays have one player they still hope to deal with before the offseason officially ends: Jose Lobaton. The 29 year old catcher is coming off a breakout season, but the trade for Ryan Hanigan and re-signing of Jose Molina leaves Lobaton without a place on the team. Making retaining all three an even unlikelier possibility is that Lobaton is out of options, meaning that he cannot be sent to the minor leagues without passing through waivers. Before the season begins, the Rays almost surely have to trade Lobaton or else risk the chance of losing him for next-to-nothing. The good news, though, is that there is plenty of interest, and foremost among the potential suitors of late has been the Washington Nationals. The Nationals also happen to have a player on trade block that the Rays have been seeking for quite a while: infielder Danny Espinosa. Could a trade of Lobaton in exchange for Espinosa make sense for both teams?
The Washington Nationals need a quality backup catcher, and they may need one more than any other team in baseball. Wilson Ramos has proven himself a capable major league starting catcher–but he has averaged just 52 games the last two seasons, and the Nationals need not only a backup, but a player with the ability to take over as the starter for an extended period of time. Right now, they simply don’t have that. Behind Ramos, they have Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, but both are inexperienced players with significant questions offensively and far from flawless defense. If either of those two were pressed into duty as a starting catcher, the Nationals would have a series of issues. The Nationals did bring three other catchers into camp–Chris Snyder, Koyie Hill, and Brian Jeroloman–but Snyder hasn’t done anything in the big leagues the last two years, Hill was never very good, and Jeroloman still hasn’t logged a single big league game. The Nationals need a superior option, and that is where Lobaton comes in. Lobaton hit to a .249/.320/.394 line (100 OPS+) in 311 plate appearances for the Rays in 2013 and has made major strides defensively as well. He is not suited to be a full-time starter, but between his strong offense for a catcher and serviceable defense, the Nationals would be fine if he was starting games for a month or two. The Nationals are a clear fit for Lobaton, and they may be the favorites to get a deal done. But would they be willing to include Espinosa?
Espinosa, who will turn 27 in April, does quite a few things that make him a valuable player. He is a slick fielder at both shortstop and second base who features both above-average power and solid speed. But especially in 2013, that was outweighed by his ability to make contact. Overaggressiveness and issues recognizing breaking pitches have led Espinosa to 432 strikeouts in his 1595 major league plate appearances, a scary 27.1%, versus just 116 walks, only 7.3%. Last season, Espinosa struck out 47 times against just 4 walks, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was just 101-19 even at Triple-A. Espinosa’s all-around ability remains tantalizing, but the chances of him returning to his previous levels appear to be slim. The Nationals do not want to trade Espinosa with his value at its nadir, and Washington GM Mike Rizzo said that Espinosa will be given a chance to compete for a utility infielder role. Espinosa also blamed his struggles on a misdiagnosed wrist injury, and there still is a chance that he could find himself again. But Espinosa is one more bad season away from having his trade value reduced to nothing and the Nationals will have no issues finding another utility infielder with players like Jamey Carroll and ex-Ray Mike Fontenot invited to their big league camp. The Nationals will not trade Espinosa for nothing, but if a reasonable offer comes along, you have to think they will be open to a trade.
The Rays would trade Lobaton for Espinosa because Lobaton is a surplus player and Espinosa’s package of abilities is hard to resist. The Nationals would do the trade because they want to receive something of value for Espinosa and Lobaton would fill a major need. Both players have four years remaining under team control, and Lobaton’s strong performance in 2013 balances out Espinosa’s higher upside but exponentially higher risk. Maybe Tampa Bay would have to chip in a minor prospect, but a deal built around Lobaton and Espinosa would work for both the Rays and Nationals. The Rays will see the offers they get for Lobaton and the Nationals will continue to listen on Espinosa, but if the circumstances are right, both teams will be able to cross one more item off their agenda in one foul swoop.