Out of curiosity during the off-season I ran a spreadsheet on the OPS of the primary backup catchers in the NL. As you would guess the average OPS for a backup catcher isn’t good. Catcher isn’t an offensive position and backup catchers are your typical catch and throw defense-first players. They aren’t expected to hit and on a team with a normal, healthy starting catcher the backup will play in around 20 or 40 games. In other words the average backup catcher is going to get into a game less than the average relief pitcher. For a normal National League team it wouldn’t matter that the average backup catcher hit .232/.289/.344 in 2013, but with Wilson Ramos the Nationals needed better.
When it comes to Wilson Ramos the expectation for injury was from the hamstring. It is what he injured twice in 2013 and would be one of the areas affected by his surgically repaired knee. If there was an injury to come it could be expected to be a leg injury. What wasn’t counted on is that Wilson Ramos is cursed with a case of chronic bad luck or Nick Johnson disease, a series of unrelated injuries that pile up during the course of a players career with no connection or rational explanation. It isn’t predictable, or logical, or rational. It only is, and today Wilson Ramos will hit the DL with a hand injury.
This is why the Nationals acquired Jose Lobaton. Lobaton is better than the average backup catcher. He was good enough to start for the playoff bound Rays in 2013 and a better option than many of the lower tier free agent catchers. Lobaton had a batting line of .249/.320/.394 and accumulated 1.4 fWAR in a career year in 2013. It is hard to say if this is repeatable, but ZiPS projections have Lobaton right around his 2013 averages and if he can do that the Nationals shouldn’t miss a beat in the weeks that Ramos is out. As far as worrying about Solano or Leon as the new backup catcher, don’t.
The average backup catcher over the course of a season will appear in roughly the same amount of games as a fifth starter. It can be surmised from this that either Solano or Leon will get as many starts as Doug Fister will miss. If Ramos is out four weeks then Solano or Leon will get four starts and if it is eight weeks they’ll get eight. Nowhere near enough to matter. The only player that matters in Ramos’ absence is Lobaton and while he isn’t as good an offensive player as Ramos he is close enough to a good starting catcher that the Nationals will be able to survive, and while Lobaton is taking Ramos’ spot in the field another player will be taking Ramos’ spot in the batting order.
Ramos starting Opening Day as the Nats number four hitter was a surprise, but given his ability to slug it is deserved and so far Matt Williams has shown himself as a manager that will choose talent over experience. He isn’t going to wait for a player to have a good season batting seventh or eighth to earn a shot to hit higher in the order he is going to attempt to maximize that good season as it happens. With Ramos now out of the line-up Lobaton will bat eighth. That leaves Rendon free to move up in the line-up. Where exactly that will be will be seen tonight and in the coming weeks. The thought on Rendon is that he will eventually hit second in the line-up, but Williams has, and likes, Zimmerman in that position. Harper could move up to fourth and the rest of the line-up following with Lobaton simply slotting in eighth and the top three in the order staying the same.
We don’t know exactly how this is going to go other than Lobaton isn’t batting clean-up. The Nats have plenty of players deserving of batting fourth in the order. The offense is going to take a dip, but with Harper, Zimmerman, Werth, and Desmond still in the line-up it shouldn’t take that big of a dip. The offense that Ramos would have provided as a catcher was a bonus. The Nats no longer have that bonus and with their pitching staff they should have plenty of offense to be able to put up the required run differential to see no substantial drop-off in play with Ramos out of the line-up.
With Ramos the Nats could have an excellent line-up. Without him they merely have what could be a very good one. The problem in 2013 is when injuries started to happen they piled up. The Nats lost Werth, Zimmerman, Ramos, and Harper all around the same time of the season. As long as those other three players stay healthy this time the Nationals won’t see the type of drop-off in offense that they saw in 2013. The Nationals not only should be able to survive without Wilson Ramos they shouldn’t even miss a beat.