Analyzing The Tampa Bay Rays-Washington Nationals Jose Lobaton Deal


The deal is now final: catcher Jose Lobaton is officially heading to the Washington Nationals, as the National announced. Joining Lobaton in the deal are starting pitching prospect Felipe Rivero and outfield prospect Drew Vettleson. The Tampa Bay Rays in return are receiving starting pitching prospect Nate Karns. With the deal now being final, what does it mean to the Rays?

In Karns, the Rays acquire a pitcher who has a huge arm, but comes with some question marks. Karns was rated the number five prospect in the Nationals system prior to 2013 seasons, and was ranked number nine this offseason. It is hard to argue with his performance thus far in his minor league career. In three seasons in the minors, Karns has pitched to a 2.66 ERA to go along with a 10.7 K/9 and a 3.8 BB/9. Last season he was stellar in Double-A, throwing to a 3.26 ERA with a 10.5 K/9 and a 3.3 BB/9 in 132.2 innings. He was hit hard in a three start cameo in the major leagues.

Despite the outstanding numbers, there are some reasons to be concerned with Karns. First of all, he is already 26 years old, and other than the three-start stint in the big leagues, he has yet to pitch above Double-A. He is already getting old in terms of prospect years, and while his performance has been solid, this means when he reaches the big leagues, he won’t be in his prime for as long. Secondly, Karns lacks a third pitch. His tall frame allows him to get good velocity on his fastball, which sits around 94-96 MPH. He also throws a plus curve, which is almost unhittable. However, his profile as a starter suffers because of his lack of a third pitch. He throws a changeup that is well below average. However, the Rays are the best team in baseball at getting pitchers to develop change-ups. Given his age, he will need to develop the changeup quickly, but if he does he could become a very successful big league starter. Karns’ profile reminds me a bit of Chris Archer (trade the curve for a slider) when he came over from the Cubs, although Archer did come over at a much younger age. Archer has now developed a decent changeup, and figures to be a key member of the Rays rotation for years to come. The Rays believe Karns can start-they wouldn’t have given up the young talent they did if they thought otherwise. All put together, Karns has a floor as a setup-man, and a ceiling as a number 2-3 starter.

So where does Karns fit in with the Rays this year? He will likely be given an outside chance at winning the number 5 starter spot, but will ultimately end up in Triple-A. If he starts out strong, he could quickly surpass other options like Alex Colome and Enny Romero as the first option in the event of a major league injury. Karns should be a big league regular by 2015, although with the Rays always having great rotation depth, he could find himself back in Triple-A. There is a chance he ends up in the bullpen if he struggles this year against tougher competition, but the Rays believe he can succeed. The key to his future relies on his changeup, which the Rays will surely get the most out of. Overall, Karns will provide key depth this year, and hopefully will become a rotation regular by 2015.

The Rays did give up three talented players to get Karns, showing just how highly they think of him. First of all is Jose Lobaton. Lobaton became expendable this offseason when the Rays had acquired Ryan Hanigan and re-signed Jose Molina. Lobaton doesn’t quite have the skill to be a starting catcher, but his improved offense makes him a valuable backup. His defense is poor, although it did improve a bit in 2013. Overall for the Rays, Lobaton was a spare part, and is the part of this trade that they will miss the least.

Pitcher Felipe Rivero is one of two prospects heading to the Nationals in this trade. Rivero, 22, has been on the Rays’ radar for quite some time, but he has never really experienced the type of breakout season that the Rays have been looking for the last couple of years. Despite that, his numbers have been decent over his career. Since being signed out of Venezuela, Rivero has pitched to a 3.45 ERA and a 7.3 K/9 with a 2.7 BB/9, including a 3.40 ERA with a 6.4 K/9 and a 3.7 BB/9 at High-A. The ERA is decent, but his peripheral stats from 2013 throw up red flags. His walk rate significantly increased, while his strikeout rate decreased, and by trading him the Rays show that they have soured on Rivero a bit. He has the upside of a mid-rotation starter, but his stuff needs some development. Right now he throws an above-average fastball, but his curveball and especially his changeup are both inconsistent. The upside is there, but he has quite a bit of work to do, and he more likely ends up in the bullpen. The Rays obviously thought he was not special enough to keep.

The second prospect heading to the Nationals is outfielder Drew Vettleson. Vettleson hits from the left side of the plate, and has shown a good natural swing with solid bat speed. However, his power hasn’t showed up in games as much as the Rays would have hoped, which made him expendable. Vettleson put himself on the radar in 2012, when he hit .275/.340/.432 with 15 HR’s in Low-A. The Rays moved him up to High-A in 2013 hoping that his power would continue to develop, however it actually regressed, as he hit just 4 HR’s and slugged only .388. Vettleson has potential to be a decent player, but at this point it seems he has the ceiling of an average outfielder and not the highest chance to get there. He plays good defense, and his bat is still decent, but the Rays didn’t view his upside as anything special because of his lack of power and speed. He still has time to put it all together, but if the power doesn’t develop he is likely just a 4th outfielder, and one that is incapable of playing centerfield at that. Similar to Rivero, the Rays don’t think as highly of Vettleson as they did a year ago, so they let him go to acquire a player they like in Karns.

Overall, the Rays give up an expendable player in Jose Lobaton, as well as two players they have soured on in Felipe Rivero and Drew Vettleson, to acquire a player they think highly of in Nate Karns. What worries me about this trade is that normally when the Rays make a trade, they are clear winners, but in this one they are not. The only way to truly judge this trade is to wait to see how the players end up panning out. In the best case scenario for the Rays, Karns would become a number 2 or 3 starter by 2015, and Rivero and Vettleson would never impact a big league club. However, Karns could end up in the bullpen, and both Rivero and Vettleson could reach their potential. If that happens, the Rays will look back and regret this trade. On first thought, I do like this trade, as Rivero and Vettleson are nothing special as prospects. Karns gives the Rays more starting depth for this year, as well as just one more starter down the road. However, only time can tell if this trade truly works out in the Rays’ favor.