Washington sends right-handed pitching prospect Karns to Tampa Bay
By Bill Ladson
VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals acquired the backup catcher they had been seeking, acquiring Jose Lobaton, outfielder Drew Vettleson and left-hander Felipe Rivero from the Rays for right-hander Nathan Karns, who was seen packing his clothes in the Nats' clubhouse Thursday morning. Washington and Tampa Bay had been talking for at least a month about a trade for Lobaton.
"It just kind of fell into my lap this morning," Karns said. "I talked to [Nationals general manager] Mike Rizzo. I have good feelings. It's just a new opportunity. Not everybody gets to stay in the same organization their whole career. Maybe, in the future, I'll be back. If not, I had a great time here. I have nothing but great things to say about it."
Karns, who was the fifth-best prospect in the Nationals' farm system, made his Major League debut last year and allowed 10 earned runs in 12 innings before he was sent down to Double-A Harrisburg, where he went 10-6 with a 3.26 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 132 2/3 innings.
Prospects acquired by Nationals
Drew Vettleson, OF: Vettleson was ranked No. 10 on the Rays' Top 20 at the time of the trade. The Pacific Northwest high school product was an all-around prospect in the 2010 Draft class, one who could switch-pitch. He was taken in the supplemental first round by Tampa Bay, though, for his bat. Vettleson has shown the ability to hit for average with a short left-handed stroke. He has a solid approach at the plate and his bat speed should allow him to hit for some power in the future. That, plus an excellent arm -- just his right one -- makes Vettleson well-suited for the right-field spot he's almost exclusively played as a professional. The 22-year-old is ready for the big jump up to Double-A.
Felipe Rivero, LHP: Rivero, ranked No. 18 on the Rays' Top 20 when the trade was announced, hit the national stage in 2012 when he represented the organization at the Futures Game. The Venezuelan lefty has moved a level at a time since making his United States debut in '11 and should join Vettleson in Double-A in '14. Rivero's fastball can touch 95 mph -- he's added considerable velocity since signing in '08 -- and it has good sink when he keeps it down in the zone. Rivero gets high marks for his quick arm, one that can deliver a swing-and-miss curve at times. His changeup gives him the chance to have a third very viable weapon. Rivero hasn't missed a ton of bats, but he's been a ground-ball machine. His walk rate jumped in '13, but he's generally been a strike-thrower in the past, one who needs to refine his command within the zone and profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation lefty in the future.
Lobaton became expendable after Tampa Bay re-signed free-agent catcher Jose Molina and traded for Ryan Hanigan. Lobaton played in 100 games for the Rays last season and hit .249 with seven home runs and 32 RBIs. He is best remembered for hitting the game-winning home run last fall against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
The Nats see Lobaton as insurance in case starting catcher Wilson Ramos has to go on the disabled list. Ramos missed a significant amount of time last year because of hamstring problems.
Lobaton is not eligible for arbitration until 2015.
"Out of the group of catchers, [Lobaton] fits the criteria we were looking for," Rizzo said. "Switch-hitting is a bonus for us. He had a [decent] season from the left side of the plate. He is a guy we control at a reasonable cost.
"His pitch framing is key. He blocks balls well, he frames pitches well. He is a good offensive catcher. He's a guy who caught a championship-caliber staff and caught 100 games last year. He passed the makeup test and the character test. He was a good fit for us. "
"I don't know if there is going to be a competition," Snyder said. "I'll see how the official word comes down and makes its way down [to the locker room]. We'll just wait it out and adjust accordingly."
Don't look for Rizzo to trim his surplus of catchers right away. He pointed out that injuries could happen this spring.
"A lot of things could happen in camp. Injuries happen," Rizzo said. "You are playing for scouts from other teams. There is a lot of opportunity for all the catchers."
Karns was having dinner with teammate Aaron Barrett on Wednesday when he received a call from his agent and his mother telling him about the rumors that he could be part of a trade that would send him to the Rays for Lobaton.
An hour before the trade was completed, Karns said he was concentrating on competing for the fifth spot in the Nats' rotation.
"That's my approach so far for Spring Training," Karns said at the time. "[The Nationals] are my first team, they signed me, they fixed me, I had my debut with them. There is a lot of history between us. It would be tough to go. But if I have to go, it's a new chapter, a new opportunity. I have to be fine with whatever happens."
Vettleson was Tampa Bay's supplemental first-round selection, the 42nd overall pick, in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. In 314 professional games in the Rays' system, Vettleson hit .276 with 66 doubles, 15 triples, 26 home runs, 171 RBIs and 45 stolen bases. He was a Midwest League All-Star and team MVP after posting a .772 OPS and 20 stolen bases for Class A Bowling Green in 2012.
"He is a 22-year old outfielder with a cannon for an arm," Rizzo said. "He has put up good numbers in a tough accelerated high A level at 21 years old. You couple that with the need, the years of control and the talent level of Lobaton, we feel really good about the trade."
After trading prospect Robbie Ray to the Tigers this offseason, the Nats were able to replace him with Rivero, who won a career-high nine games and posted a 3.40 ERA in 25 games (23 starts) last season for Class A Charlotte. He represented the Rays at the Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium in 2012 while pitching for Bowling Green, and he earned an All-Star nod from the Midwest League. Rivero's fastball can hit 96 mph and he has a good breaking ball.
Rivero is 29-25 with a 3.45 ERA in 96 games (65 starts) in five seasons since signing with Tampa Bay in 2008 as a non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela.
"He has a huge upside," Rizzo said. "The most important thing on the Rivero part of the trade is, his stuff is really good. He is a wide-arm -- 21-year-old at the time in the Florida State League -- who is throwing 94, 95 mph, touching 96. Our scouts said he spins the curveball."