For 2 1/2 seasons, the Nationals had nothing but veteran catchers on their roster. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki joined forces to win a championship in 2019, then returned to work together in 2020. And after Suzuki departed as a free agent last winter, the Nats brought in Alex Avila to back up Gomes this season, again ensuring they’d have two seasoned guys behind the plate.
These days? Well, the Nats’ catching position couldn’t look any more dramatically different. With Gomes traded to the Athletics and Avila still rehabbing from calf strains, they’ve gone exclusively with a couple of rookies in Tres Barrera and Riley Adams.
It’s a rare thing to have two rookie catchers – and no others – on a major league roster, but the rest of the Nationals are embracing the situation.
“They seem older than they are. They don’t seem like rookies back there,” left-hander Patrick Corbin said Friday night on Zoom after his dominant start in Milwaukee. “They’ve been calling, I feel, great games. They want to learn. They’re willing to learn. Both of them are always sitting in on meetings and trying to figure us out. I know it’s been tough for them to come in and catch all these different guys. Hopefully the rest of this season we continue to gain experience for them, and they can get familiar with us.”
The early reports on Barrera and Adams have been positive. They may not have the experience Gomes did, and they may still be learning a lot on the fly. But they’re holding their own and gaining valuable experience in the process.
“It’s been a lot of conversations, good conversations,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But they’re both willing to learn, wanting to learn. Every day, it’s been conversations, talking through stuff with them, going over sometimes mistakes with them, so they learn. But they’re very receptive, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
With another young catcher, new organizational top prospect Keibert Ruiz, waiting in the wings at Triple-A Rochester, the Nationals are using this time to evaluate both Barrera and Adams. Chances are, there will be room for one of them on the 2022 roster as Ruiz’s backup, though a lot can still change between now and then.
Barrera, by virtue of his tenure within the organization, originally was catching the bulk of games before and after the trade deadline at the end of July. But in the last week, Adams appears to have supplanted him. The former Blue Jays catcher, acquired for reliever Brad Hand, started his fourth consecutive game behind the plate Friday night.
And Adams is producing at the plate as well. Since joining the Nats, he’s now batting .333 (10-for-30) with two doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and a 1.012 OPS.
“He’s swinging the bat well and I wanted him to continue to play,” Martinez said of the decision to start Adams in four straight games. “He’s catching well. Just want to see him play a little bit. He’s had some good at-bats of late. And with the day off (Thursday), he’s getting an opportunity to play again today.”
Barrera hasn’t been cast aside. Martinez said he’s likely to start today’s game in Milwaukee. But it does seem notable that Adams is now getting more playing time, despite the fact he’s still learning the Nationals pitching staff on the fly.
As for the challenge of learning a new pitching staff and asserting yourself as a rookie catcher? Slowly but surely, it’s happening.
“I know they’ve had good conversations with the starters and trying to learn them and trying to get on their routine,” Martinez said. “They’ve been really good. The conversations have been good. Tres has done a great job with our pitching staff, and he’s continuing to learn. And so has Riley. He’s done really well back there calling games. I’m really surprised, as big as he is, he gives a good target and he gets down and blocks balls fairly well.”