Jose Lobaton had no spot on the Tampa Bay Rays’ roster, and it was only a matter of time until a deal came together. Today, just one day before Rays pitchers and catchers report, Lobaton has indeed been traded, heading to the Washington Nationals for right-handed Nate Karns.
Lobaton, 29, makes a lot of sense for the Nationals as a backup catcher and injury insurance for Wilson Ramos. Lobaton hit to a .249/.320/.394 line (100 OPS+) in 311 plate appearances in 2013, standing out for solid plate discipline and a flair for the dramatic. Though Lobaton is leaving Tampa Bay, Rays fans will not be able to forget his walk-off home run off Koji Uehara in ALDS Game 3 to keep the Rays’ hopes alive. A switch-hitter, Lobaton has a virtually neutral platoon split for his career but was much better against right-handed pitching in 2013, hitting them to a .246/.330/.406 line with 6 of his 7 home runs. Lobaton could give Ramos the occasional day off against a tough right-hander as the Nationals hope to keep Ramos healthy without losing too much at the plate. Defensively, Lobaton has his questions as he has thrown out just 16% of attempted basestealers in his career, but he is considered a good game-caller who is solid at blocking balls in the dirt. At the very least, his defense is serviceable. The Nationals needed a high-quality backup catcher, and they got one in Lobaton.
Nate Karns is an interesting place as a pitching prospect. Few 26 year olds can be considered anything like a top prospect, but Karns is among them thanks to two impressive pitches in his fastball and curveball. Karns is in such a strange situation because he was drafted in 2009 but did not make his professional debut until 2011 thanks to shoulder surgery. But Karns has avoided further injury problems since and was excellent in 2013, going 10-6 with a 3.26 ERA, a 10.5 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 23 starts and 132.2 innings pitched at Double-A. He even made three big league appearances at the end of the year, although he allowed 11 runs in 12 innings pitched. Despite his age, Karns does have interesting upside. He does still, though, come with his concerns. Karns reaches 95 MPH with his fastball with solid sink, but he does have issues commanding it down in the zone at this point. His curveball gives him a swing-and-miss offering, but he needs to work on locating it for called strikes. Finally, his changeup is inconsistent, and the Rays will have to work with him on that if he is going to remain a starting. Though his age would indicate otherwise, Karns is best suited to spend most of the year at Triple-A. If he can make the final refinements his game needs, however, he could still have considerable ability as a starting pitcher.
In this trade, both sides received flawed players. Lobaton’s defense, especially his ability to throw out runners, is not quite good enough while Karns has interesting stuff but is an older prospects who has serious questions with his command and changeup. However, the Nationals received a security blanket at catcher while the Rays find themselves with another promising pitcher to develop. Both sides took a surplus part and turned it into a potentially valuable asset. We can’t be sure how Jose Lobaton and Nate Karns will turn out, but no one can doubt that both teams had the right mindset for this trade.
Update: The Rays will also trade the Nationals two other players, and one of them will be lefty Felipe Rivero. Rivero, 22, managed a 3.41 ERA at High-A Charlotte one year after a 3.40 ERA in his breakout season at Low-A Bowling Green, but he saw his K/9 drop from 7.8 to 6.4 and his walk rate climb from 2.3 per 9 to 3.7. Rivero stands out for a good low-90’s fastball and a curveball that shows promise, but his command of both pitches is inconsistent and he is more realistically a reliever. The Nationals essentially found themselves a younger and less developed version of Karns in addition to Lobaton while the Rays turned a spare catcher and an enigmatic lefty into a pitcher with good stuff who could contribute in the big leagues this season.
One More Update: The final player the Rays will trade is Drew Vettleson. The case for trading him: he’s nothing special. He doesn’t have much power or speed and his only plus tool is his arm, which is erratic at this point. He has 4th outfielder upside and can’t play centerfield. The case against: he’s coming off just one bad year and still has the ability to be an average right fielder. Why give up on him so soon?