Riley Adams rejoins the Nationals with another chance to stick


SEATTLE — A year ago, Riley Adams was an early face of the Washington Nationals’ rebuild, a 25-year-old catcher who was productive on offense and walked up to Blink-182. Landing him for struggling closer Brad Hand felt like a full-on heist, especially after Adams beat the division rival Atlanta Braves with a towering homer at Truist Park. And no matter what happens from here, it will always be a good trade for the Nationals, as the Toronto Blue Jays got a handful of appearances from Hand while Washington received a potential part of its future.

But progress is rarely linear in this sport. Sometimes it looks like the results of a polygraph test. Sometimes it is a straight upward slope, then sometimes it trends straight down. For Adams, a strong end to 2021 gave way to a rough start to this season. Backing up 24-year-old Keibert Ruiz, Adams had a .192 batting average, .284 on-base percentage and .321 slugging percentage in 88 plate appearances before he was optioned to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings in early July. The plan was for Adams to find a rhythm with more consistent at-bats, catch and play first, perhaps preparing him to replace Josh Bell after the trade deadline.

The plan, though, was derailed by a wrist injury that kept him out for most of last month. But after the Nationals demoted catcher Tres Barrera on Monday, Adams was recalled Tuesday ahead of a two-game series with the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park. To make room for starter Erick Fedde, who was scheduled to pitch to Adams in the opener, the team designated veteran reliever Tyler Clippard for assignment. With first base filled by Luke Voit and Joey Meneses, Adams is likely to settle back into his role behind Ruiz, staying at catcher for now despite a 6-foot-4, 249-pound frame.

For most of his baseball life, scouts and coaches have tried to move Adams to first, feeling his size would prohibit him from being a strong receiver. But Adams has pointed to Jacob Stallings (6-5, 255) and Sean Murphy (6-3, 228) as counterarguments. Stallings, now with the Miami Marlins, won the Gold Glove in the National League last year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Murphy won in the American League with the Oakland Athletics. Pitchers like Adams because he is a big target, which was part of why the Nationals (41-82) used him as Patrick Corbin’s personal catcher earlier in the season. But to fix himself in Washington’s long-term vision — and to avoid a return to the minors — Adams has to keep improving there and in his limited chances at the plate.

“We’ve always had in mind to bring him back,” Manager Dave Martinez said Tuesday afternoon. “We wanted, as I talked about, to get him a bunch of at-bats. We thought that it was time to get him back up here and get him some reps up here. It was good to see him. It kind of stinks for Tres, but I told Tres to go down there and get going again.”

These are the general asks for a backup catcher: Don’t let the defense or game-planning slip in a maximum two starts per week. Chip in on offense, even if a bulk of reps come against coaches or a pitching machine in the cage. Adams has felt those expectations, has struggled with them and is about to have another chance. In a small sample, according to Statcast’s advanced defensive metrics, his pitch framing has left a lot to be desired. His bat, meanwhile, has flashed its potential alongside encouraging patience.

Of the 12 players acquired at last year’s deadline, four are with the Nationals: Adams, Ruiz, starter Josiah Gray and outfielder Lane Thomas. Otherwise, outfielder Donovan Casey was designated for assignment this month and cleared waivers, returning to Rochester; reliever Mason Thompson has been up and down and is with the Red Wings, too; right-handed pitcher Gerardo Carrillo returned from shoulder issues in July and is relieving for the high Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks; catcher Drew Millas was slowed by injuries, then slid from Class AA Harrisburg to Wilmington; right-handed pitcher Seth Shuman is resting because of elbow soreness after posting a 3.32 ERA in 14 outings for Wilmington; right-handed pitcher Richard Guasch struggled in Harrisburg, was demoted to Wilmington and is on the 60-day injured list; shortstop Jordy Barley has struggled in Wilmington; and Aldo Ramirez, a 21-year-old righty, is recovering from season-ending Tommy John surgery.

That list is an acute reminder of how not all trade returns work out — and even if they do, the wins can materialize slowly. Aside from Trea Turner, the Nationals netted the dozen young players with veterans on expiring contracts. With Hand, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Daniel Hudson, Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber, the outgoing value was limited, so the incoming value matched. And while it may seem prudent to give the acquired players every opportunity, the Nationals don’t have to act as if they made major concessions to attain them.

Take Casey as an example. He arrived in the four-player package for Turner and Max Scherzer, joining Ruiz, Gray and Carrillo. Last fall, he was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. But after he was called up and didn’t debut in April, he had a rough summer in Rochester, his strikeout rate spiking to 33.3 percent. So the club designated him for assignment, deciding it didn’t have to keep Casey on the 40-man roster because of a high-profile trade.

Casey is 26 and has to climb his way back up. Adams, the same age, is at the stage of trying to stick.

“You never want to get sent down. It’s not the best feeling,” Adams said. “But I saw it as an opportunity to go down there and get at-bats and get as many reps as possible. I tried to take advantage as much as I could. I’m just happy to be back now.”

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