The Best Expos and Nationals Catchers of All Time (2024)

One of the cornerstones of my philosophy, which we’ll explore further when we get to the franchises that have switched leagues, is this: The years from 1988-1993 were the pinnacle of human achievement and everything (well, everything in baseball) should have stayed exactly as it was back then. I’m a middle-aged fan; what else would you expect from me?

The point is, while y’all are trying to see how crazy a Shoeless Joe scandal could get in the social media era by putting a team in Las Vegas, I’m more concerned with putting an expansion team back in Montreal. Sure, I’ve never been there, I don’t speak French, and I still don’t understand why their old logo appears to have the letters “ELB” on it, but they were a hard-luck franchise with a funny mascot, and baseball can always use more of those.

Also, they totally deserve a retroactive championship for 1994. We can’t know what would have happened in the playoffs, but even a strike-shortened season must have a champion; it’s a law of the competitive Universe, every contest has a winner. Barring playoffs, we should do what they did in 1901: Give it to the team with the best record. But I’m not the commissioner of baseball, so all I can offer the people of Montreal is this ode to their catchers.1 And, fine, Washington’s too. No offense, Nationals fans; we could always give you back the Senators…

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Ron Brand 1969
Jesus Flores 2008
Yan Gomes 2020
Kurt Suzuki 2019
John Boccabella 1973
Riley Adams 2023

Brand got the lion's share of catching duties in the team's inaugural season, posted a decent .327 OBP; made the rare switch to playing mostly shortstop the next season. Flores hit .308 with power against lefties in '08, .344 through the end of May. Gomes posted a weak year in 2019, got traded midway through '21, but played well in 109 at-bats in 2020. That was the COVID year, so his stats look pretty good if you project them to a full schedule. He split time with Suzuki, whose later career is a series of two and three-year stints and strong production in partial or half-seasons. Boccabella had some similarities to a couple of guys who ranked higher on the list: Played a bit of first like Jose Morales, low-OBP righty bat with a bit of pop like John Bateman. Adams hit 13 doubles in 143 at-bats in 2023. Sometimes you include a guy who isn't washed up and can hit a bit, just in case he has a good year.

12. Jose Morales 1976

Career line of .294-.343-.401 against lefties, befitting a career as a DH, first baseman, and emergency catcher in Montreal and Minnesota. Caught a bit more in the bicentennial year, there being no DH to play in the NL. Hit .373 between June and August, but began the year not playing much and closed it not hitting much. In a game at Parc Jarry on September 9th, 1975, provided nearly all the offense for the Expos, going 4-for-4 with a double and homer as they beat the Mets, 2-1 in extras.

11. Ivan Rodriguez 2010

Think of this as an early cameo by a character who'll be important later in the series. If you didn't even remember I-Rod played for these guys, you're forgiven. (I knew he bounced around at the end of his career, but not sure I could have named the right teams.) Started out the year red-hot, .413 with 7 doubles in April, then kind of muddled along through July before closing strong: .298 with 12 RBI in September. A year later, the future Hall of Famer played the final game of his MLB career as a National, going 1-for-3 in Miami. Opposing pitcher Chris Volstad had not yet turned five years old when I-Rod debuted in 1991.

10. Nelson Santovenia 1989

Sometimes it's the short-term guys who bring you back to certain era. As just noted, Ivan Rodriguez played through a lot of baseball history and changed with the times, but if I say “Nelson Santovenia,” there was a relatively brief chunk of spacetime where Santovenia was a starting catcher in the National League, 1988-89, and if like me you were a kid with baseball cards in those years, just the name can summon memories. I usually think of Santovenia as the Official Catcher of 1989 Nostalgia and Damon Berryhill as the choice for '88, but you can flip 'em if you like. They both had two similar seasons in a row, at a similar performance level to each other.

9. John Bateman 1970

Some guys seem destined to hang out on expansion teams; maybe they're fringe starters or underdogs scrapping for a chance, or maybe it's their fate to bring credibility in their wake. In the modern era, Craig Counsell and Quinton McCracken each played for three of the four 90's expansion teams (Counsell missed Tampa Bay, McCracken Miami). In the 60's, Rusty Staub starred for the Astros, Expos, and Mets in succession. Nolan Ryan played for all four 60’s franchises, nobody else. And John Bateman, after posting his career year in '66 for Houston, went on to have the first good catching year in the history of the Expos. Well, I say good… offense was still recovering from the 60's swoon. 15 homers and 68 RBI weren't bad for a catcher, though the .275 OBP limited his impact.

8. Chris Widger 1999

If you're like me and you hear the name "Widger," the first thing that comes to mind is it rhymes with "Bridger," the name of Roy Scheider's captain character on 1990's sci-fi artifact seaQuest DSV. So, in summary, don't be like me. In baseball terms, Widger is notable for having a little pop in his bat: double-digit homers in three straight years, albeit years when a LOT of people were hitting homers. Hit .350 against lefties and generally a platoon-quality player, although the '99 team's other catcher was fellow righty Michael Barrett, shifting between catcher and third. Widger later drove in a run in the World Series when the White Sox broke their curse in 2005.

7. Mike Fitzgerald 1990

Broke in with the Mets, just missed the honorable mentions on that list. Included in the grab bag the Expos got for Gary Carter, he was maybe the third-best player of the group but stuck in Montreal the longest. Depending how you want to look at it, he was either the best backup catcher in the National League in the late 80's or a fairly middling starter. Mild on/off year tendency: decent seasons in '84, 86, 88, 90, lesser years in '85, 87, 89, 91. When that happened to Bret Saberhagen, we called it a curse, but the baseball gods rarely take personal notice of third-best players. Annoying reverse platoon splits in both his best years: .227 vs LHP in '86, .225 in '90.

6. Brian Schneider 2005

The last regular catcher for the Expos and the first for the Nationals, though he missed playing in the final Expos game; backup Einar Diaz caught that day. Split career causes trouble assigning his best season: He hit a little better in '05, plus I tend to associate him more with the Washington years. But he played just as many games in Montreal (actually, a few more) and was more durable in '04, producing better overall numbers. As a lefty-hitting catcher who provided solid defense, he was unspectacular but useful.

5. Keibert Ruiz 2023

Feels like we're in a holding pattern with Ruiz; his '22 and '23 seasons were both solid, but not breakout performances, and I assume the latter is what you're hoping for when a guy's included in a trade for Scherzer and Trea Turner. With 90 or more at-bats against all four division rivals, came into '24 hitting .289 against the Marlins, .276 against the Mets, .253 against Atlanta... and .156 with a .391 OPS against the Phillies. I realize that factoid was pretty random, but I don't really have any numbers that'll tell you whether this is his year. I'm not a scout, just a guy who combs through statistics...

4. Barry Foote 1974

We covered Foote's other good year in his Cubs comment. I called his '74 "one of the better NL catching years of the 70's." I guess I should note Bench, Simmons, Milt May, and the Dodger combo of Ferguson and Yeager all played better, Sanguillen and Rader just as well. But all those guys had longer careers, and most did even more in other seasons. If you're asking the question, "Which NL catcher had his BEST year in 1974?" the top answer is Foote, but that's a limited question unless you're working on a particular roster concept for a PC or table game. It just happens to be a concept I use a lot, so it weighs heavily in my thinking...

3. Darrin Fletcher 1995

Both Canadian franchises (or formerly Canadian) needed a catcher in the 1990's. Fletcher had the best years for both, but like Spidey choosing between saving MJ and the trolley full of people, he can only catch (for) one franchise. I generally place him with Toronto and let Montreal crash to the ground, which given the history of things, seems sadly appropriate. It’s awkward because he played better in Toronto, but his most notable place in history is catching for that "what-could-have-been" '94 Expos team. Batted only .188 (15-for-80) against lefties in '94-95, .342 against them in 2000, accounting for much of the difference.

2. Wilson Ramos 2016

Joins Fitzgerald, Schneider, and Carter on the Mets to Expos/Nats Express. Acquired from Minnesota in a deadline deal for Matt Capps, had a good year in 2011 (.779 OPS, 15 homers) but between injuries and slumps, didn't put it all together again for a few years: A good partial year in '13, .229 in a full 2015, etc. Came out of the gate like he was ready to rumble in '16, hitting .340 with 12 homers through June. Cooled off but never slumped, hitting at least .261 in every month thereafter. Made the All-Star Team, left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Still a pretty good return for a short reliever.

1. Gary Carter 1982

We discussed Carter's most memorable slump in the Mets comment; seems like this is a good place to note, for about a decade from '77 through '86, he was just insanely good, fully deserving of his Hall of Fame plaque. Hit 29 or more homers four times in that stretch; only Bench and Piazza showed such consistent power among expansion era catchers. Failed to hit 20 homers only in '81 (the strike year; he was easily on pace) and '83, when he randomly decided to hit doubles instead (a career-high 37). His '82 is probably the iconic 1980's catcher season, but if you were making some kind of league and wanted to use Diaz or Kennedy for '82, his '84 and '85 seasons were only a quarter-step below. I still miss watching him play.

The final decision here is no contest at all: Ramos and Fletcher were fine players, but they're nowhere near Carter, who's on the Expos' Mount Rushmore along with Dawson, Raines, and Guerrero. Among Nationals, Bryce Harper was better at his best but didn't stay long enough, and I'd take Carter over Ryan Zimmerman. An all-time catcher in every sense.

On Saturday: Marlins and Rays catchers.

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The Best Expos and Nationals Catchers of All Time (2024)

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