Wilson Ramos trying to avoid pitfalls of contract year pressure

VIERA, Fla. - Wilson Ramos saw Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span and Doug Fister all struggle at times in 2015, perhaps burdened by the pressure they faced to perform in contract years.

Now Ramos finds himself in that exact same situation, hoping he can avoid the subject (and the struggles) while fully aware of what lies ahead.

"It's hard to not think about that, but I'm trying not to think," the Nationals catcher said Thursday on the first official day of spring training. "I'm just trying to come back here, day by day, and see what happens. I just try to do my best, and to me ... I know it's hard not thinking about the contract. It's my last year here, I'm going to be a free agent. But a lot of people, when they think too much about free agency, they lose focus. So I don't want to do that. I want to stay focused on this year and see what happens for the next."

Ramos-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgRamos' pending free agency hasn't garnered nearly as much attention as the above quartet drew last season. Even now, his situation isn't on par with batterymate Stephen Strasburg, who also is entering a contract year and could well be the biggest-name pitcher on the market next winter.

But make no mistake, this is a significant season for Ramos and for the Nationals, who after working the last five years to develop the one-time prospect into an everyday, big league catcher now must decide if they want to commit to him for the long-term future or start all over again.

Ramos certainly has his supporters within the organization, those who see his strong arm (he led all major league catchers with a 44 percent caught stealing rate in 2015) and power bat (he has homered in 3.4 percent of his career plate appearances, well above the MLB rate of 2.5 percent) as rare commodities.

Detractors would point to Ramos' .229 batting average, .258 on-base percentage and 20 percent strikeout rate last season as red flags for a long-term commitment. Not to mention the fact he had never navigated his way through an entire season without a disabled list stint until 2015.

Ramos hopes to put some of those concerns to rest this season, particularly at the plate, where he is attempting to focus on better contact and fewer swings and misses.

"Right now I'm doing a lot of drills," he said. "I'm trying to concentrate more on the strike zone, try to put the ball in play more. Hopefully, this year I'll try to do a better job than last year. Last year was not a good year offensively, but that happens in baseball. This year I have to turn the page and see what I can do."

The Nationals don't have a slam-dunk candidate in-house to replace Ramos should he depart next winter. Fellow veteran Jose Lobaton remains under team control in 2017 but isn't viewed as a full-season starter. Pedro Severino, the organization's top catching prospect, turned heads last season and earned a September promotion, but he has only 93 games of experience above Single-A and will need to put together a big year to prove he's ready to take over in 2017.

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