Andrew Friedman took it nearly down to the wire, but Thursday morning he finally made the trade he was expected to make since early December when Jose Lobaton became expendable after the Tampa Bay Rays acquired catcher Ryan Hanigan.
The Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations wanted to trade Lobaton before the start of spring training to avoid distractions, and he did, sending Lobaton and two minor-league prospects to the Washington Nationals for right-hander Nate Karns, 26. The move came less than 24 hours before pitchers and catchers were due to report today to the Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.
Included in the trade were left-handed pitcher Felipe Rivero, who was on the Rays’ 40-man roster, and outfielder Drew Vettleson.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Karns made three starts for the Nationals last season but spent the remainder of the year in Double-A, where he struck out 155 batters in 1322⁄3 innings. Ranked as the Nats’ fourth-best prospect by ESPN.com’s Keith Law, Karns averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings during his three minor-league seasons.
“We feel he’s got a chance to be a really good major-league starting pitcher,” Friedman said. “He’s a big, strong, physical guy. Plus-fastball, plus-breaking ball and the change-up really came on for him last year. We think he has the size, strength, durability to be a guy who can put 200-plus innings on his body. For now we’re just anxious to have a chance to be around him, get to know him, slot him into our program and assess things as we go.”
Karns was expected to compete this spring for the fifth spot on the Nationals staff. The Rays do have an opening in their rotation with Jeremy Hellickson out until at least mid-May after having minor elbow surgery Jan. 28, but Friedman indicated Karns’ chances of pitching for the big league club are later rather than sooner.
“It just kind of fell into my lap this morning,” Karns told MLB.com of the trade. “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.”
Lobaton is expected to be the Nationals’ backup catcher this season. He is coming off a breakout season in 2013, when he hit .249 with seven home runs and 32 RBIs. Lobaton’s game finally came together at the major-league level. He developed into a dependable defensive catcher and earned the trust of the pitchers.
He also had a knack for the big hit. His last hit as a Ray was memorable — a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Rays a 5-4 win against Boston in Game 3 of the AL division series.
But Lobaton became the odd-man out when the Rays re-signed Jose Molina for two seasons, traded with Cincinnati for Hanigan, then signed Hanigan to a three-year extension. Friedman said he could have opened spring training with three catchers on the 25-man roster but wanted to avoid that because of the distraction it would create for Lobaton and his teammates.
“It’s just something he would have been asked about a lot. Other people would have been asked about it. It was something that would have taken away a little bit of focus off the team,” Friedman said. “Also in a perfect world we would have done it for him. It’s not incredibly fair for him to be in spring training and everyone asking him every day, ‘Have you heard anything? Do you expect to be traded today?’ while he’s trying to get ready for the season. This gives him a chance to go to Washington and get acclimated with those pitchers.”
Rivero, 22, led the Stone Crabs in starts (23), innings pitched (127) and wins (nine) last summer. Baseball America ranked Rivero as the 17th prospect in the Rays’ farm system. Vettleson, drafted 42nd overall in the 2010 draft, hit .274 last season for the Stone Crabs.
Friedman said he believed both players have a chance to be major-leaguers, but was willing to move them to add depth to the organization’s starting pitching.
“Starting pitching depth can be fleeting. You’ve seen that with Hellickson, and that’s before we even started spring training,” Friedman said. “So you get into a situation where if you have a setback or two with other guys it just gets a lot more uncomfortable. … The depth, the reinforcement he adds to our rotation as we head into spring training and the 2014 season is something that was definitely worth something to us.”