Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos came into the current offseason with certain expectations regarding his value as a free agent. Coming off an injury-shortened season and rehabbing another ACL repair, he hasn’t quite garnered the attention he might have expected. With the Nationals declining to extend him a qualifying offer, it looks as though Ramos may be re-adjusting his expectations just a touch.
According to FanRag’s Jon Heyman, Ramos may be willing to sign a short-term deal in an effort to re-build his value and give himself an opportunity to cash in on a larger contract after a season or two of proving that he still has it.
Who is he?
After a rookie season in 2011 where Ramos hit .267/.334/.445 with 15 home runs and garnered some NL Rookie of the Year attention (he finished fourth), he spent the next three years putting up very similar numbers, but in limited action. From 2012 to 2014, Ramos played in 191 games. He had something of a down year in 2015, batting a career low .229 with a .616 OPS.
Then 2016 happened. Coming into this last season, Ramos was a 28-year-old catcher who was by all accounts above average at his position (even considering the down year in 2015). Something clicked for him in 2016, though, and he started tearing the cover off the ball. He hit .330 through the first half with 13 home runs on his way to his first All-Star Game, and while he slowed down a bit in the second half of the season, he was still swinging the wood quite well. Prior to his most recent knee injury he was sporting an .850 OPS with 22 home runs.
This was a substantial step forward in his production, and it is one he attributes primarily to LASIK surgery. Yes, LASIK surgery. There’s a certain amount of evidence to support the idea that he’s seeing the ball better, which has lead to his increased output. He swung at pitches outside the strike zone at the lowest rate of his career, his overall strikeout rate was down to 15 percent (the lowest it’s been since 2013), and his contact rate was at almost 82 percent, which was also a career high. Not only was he making contact, but he was hitting the ball very hard. His percentage of hard hit balls was a career-high 35.4 percent and his home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) moved up to 21.4 percent which is also a career high.
Ramos isn’t too shabby behind the plate either. He has a career 34 percent caught stealing average and was the sixth-best catcher in that statistical category in 2016. His defensive WAR for last season was 0.6 and he has never posted a negative number in that category in his career.
Why should we care?
Remember 2011? It was but a scant five years ago when Adele was crushing the music charts and Charlie Sheen brought us the (thankfully) short-lived catchphrases of “tiger blood” and “winning”. You know who else was winning in 2011? Alex Avila. In what turned out to be a year of unrealistic expectations, Avila hit .295/.389/.895 with 19 home runs. He was an All-Star, won a Silver slugger, and finished 12th in MVP voting (behind 2 other Tigers). How much fun was it to watch the catcher come to the plate and not automatically default to hoping he didn’t strike out or hit into a double play?
That is, potentially, the kind of production Ramos could bring back to the Tigers. Detroit hasn’t had a consistently above-average offensive producer at the catcher’s position since Pudge Rodriguez came to the team in the mid-aughts. At 29 years old, and assuming his offensive production isn’t diminished too greatly, Ramos is still in his prime years and has the potential to give Detroit a couple seasons of that kind of production, eliminating an offensive dead-zone in the lineup. Even if he comes back to earth a little bit, a guy who can hit in the neighborhood of .270 with potential for 15-20 home runs would be more than fine.
Why should we stay away?
There are reasons, the first of them being money. Ramos turned down a three-year, $33 million offer before he was injured last year, and even though he didn’t get a qualifying offer, it’s pretty realistic to assume any sort of advances Ramos is fielding are going to quickly move beyond the range of what the Tigers would be willing to pony up.
You also have to consider James McCann. Signing Ramos puts the team in kind of an awkward position in regards to what they do with him. It was just last year that the team committed to McCann as their full-time starting catcher, but his production in 2016 was disappointing when compared to the expectations laid upon him at the start of the season. There was an early April ankle injury that may have had lingering effects on his performance throughout the season. McCann had a stronger second-half, hitting .246 through August and September and managed 12 home runs. Bringing in Ramos would reduce McCann to a backup position. It would kick the can on determining his status as the catcher of the future a year or two further down the road, and could prove detrimental to McCann’s development. A healthy McCann could feasibly perform at a level equal to Ramos’ career numbers, thus making a Ramos signing a potentially pointless endeavor.
There are also injury issues. Ramos is rehabbing his second ACL injury this offseason and hasn’t exactly been the picture of health throughout his career. Since 2011, he has managed to play an average of 93 games a season. When he does come back in 2017, the month of May is his best case scenario for return. He will likely be unable to start off catching from the get go, so spending some time as the DH might be a possibility if it weren’t for the fact that Detroit is already paying Victor Martinez $18 million per year.
Finally, when you look at 2016, it might be a fluky year for Ramos. Even if the Tigers would be buying relatively low because of his knee injury, they may still overpay for what they expect a healthy Ramos to produce. Those gaudy numbers in 2016 carried a big ‘ol .327 BABIP with them, and it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of regression from a healthy Ramos, let a lone a guy rehabbing his second significant knee injury.
Will he end up in Detroit?
I think we would see Gene LaMont cast in the next Magic Mike movie before we see Wilson Ramos in a Tigers uniform. He isn’t going to get the kind of money he would have demanded if healthy, but there’s little chance Ramos signs for an amount the Tigers would be willing to spend on a second catcher. Combine that with the team’s dedication to McCann as the starter and the questions surrounding Ramos’s ability to continue performing like he did in 2016, and it just doesn’t seem all that likely.