Some thoughts on the Nate Karns, Jose Lobaton trade

Posted on February 13, 2014 by Andrew Bailey

Photo Credit: Mike Carson/AP

On the day that pitchers and catchers reported to Viera, Florida, the Nationals agreed to trade one of those players -- Nate Karns, who started three games for the big league club a year ago -- to the Tampa Bay Rays for catcher Jose Lobaton and two minor league prospects, outfielder Drew Vettleson and pitcher Felipe Rivero.

For a plethora of reasons, the deal is likely to be met with derision, although the two prospects coming back to DC help quell some of that. The rumored original deal -- Karns for Lobaton straight up -- would've been far more divisive. For the sake of this argument, I'll focus mainly on those two guys.

On the one hand, Karns was one of many quality arms that could have contributed either in the back of the rotation or out of the bullpen. Dan Szymborski's well-respected ZiPS projections recently pegged Karns as the team's fifth-best starter for 2014

Lobaton, meanwhile, is a 29-year-old player with limited offensive ability and average (at best) defense behind the plate, per the scouting reports I've read and statistics I've scoured. Let's be honest: I haven't sat and watched hours of game tape on the guy.

In a lot of ways, he's similar to Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, who the Nats already have occupying spots on the 40-man roster. So it's not like there weren't already comparable options -- options that wouldn't have cost a pitching prospect -- in place.

But while I'm skeptical of how good a player Lobaton is myself, I'm also skeptical as to what exactly Karns' value to the team is. I don't buy that he's a better fifth option than Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, and Ross Ohlendorf, among others (or, if he is better, I think it's awfully close), nor do I think he'd be so tremendous out of the bullpen that his value there couldn't be replaced. The ZiPS projections are great, but they're not gospel. And bullpen arms are pretty regularly available, not to mention the Nats already have a ton of capable righties in place throughout the system.

If you view Karns as somewhere between a third and fifth starter at best for an average team, it's difficult to see where he'd fit in the Nationals' rotation in the immediate future. He's clearly not a better pitcher than any of the top four, which means barring injuries, he's your fifth starter at best this year and next. Having talent in that fifth slot is great, but the Nats have a bunch of young arms coming down the pipeline. I guess I just don't see that great a value for him to this team, as it is currently constructed. Granted, if you're going to move players because they aren't going to fit going forward, you should certainly try to maximize their value.

And while Lobaton's game has plenty of warts, it's a lot more difficult to find average talent at catcher than for your bullpen.

A year ago, Lobaton was a 1.4 WAR player. Kurt Suzuki, who occupied the Nationals' back-up spot last season, posted a -0.3 WAR before being shipped back to Oakland. Wilson Ramos has never been a beacon of good health. So it isn't insane to give yourself several options to plug that back-up role. A two win difference is big when you consider this team underperformed throughout all of 2013 and still only missed the postseason by four games.

My biggest concern would be this: the Rays don't botch trades very often. So either they see something untapped in Karns that the Nationals don't or they simply see this as a better alternative to designating Lobaton for assignment in a few weeks. I always feel better swinging deals with teams who have a history of being boneheaded.

Bottom line for me, at least: this is a trade where the center pieces are fringe players. Because Karns is labeled a "prospect," his value is perceived higher than it probably is in reality. In baseball, prospects are viewed like draft pick currency in other sports. NFL fans want their team to have a million picks just like MLB fans want their team to have a million prospects. The quality of those picks/prospects often seems secondary. I'd rather have the fringe talent at a position of greater scarcity, at least in this specific scenario.

That the Nationals were able to acquire Vettleson and Rivero as well is a bonus. To be frank, I'm not familiar enough with either player to have a concrete opinion on them. Throughout the course of the day, I read over a few scouting reports, and both guys have received favorable reviews. I was sold on the one-for-one deal, but the inclusion of a couple of young guys who seem to rate well only makes me feel that much better about this deal.

next up:

Red Porch Report 02-10-14 (Nationals Podcast)

February 11, 2014

With spring training looming, Dr. Ray Solano joins the show to round-up the Nats injury scene.

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