Anyone else a little bit surprised to see Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos among the National League finalists for a Rawlings Gold Glove Award? Yes, Ramos effectively controls the opposition’s running game - gunning down 24 of 54 would-be base stealers last season - and has improved his game-calling ability. His .995 fielding percentage certainly looks impressive. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t cringe when a throw from the outfield skips in front of the plate because of Ramos’ inability to play short hops and his propensity to drop throws. He’s made strides, but it must be a thin year for strong defensive backstops in the land of metallic mitts. This is one of those areas where the eye test and advance metrics provide a confusing confluence.
The 28-year-old Ramos is one of nine Nationals eligible for arbitration, and MLBTradeRumors.com predicts that his .229/258/.358 slash line, which included 15 homers and a career-high 68 RBIs, will earn him a $5.3 million payday in 2016. That’s more than twice his 2014 salary of $2.095 million and a hair under his combined salaries from 2014 and 2015, when he made $3.55 million.
On one hand, Ramos finally had an injury-free campaign in 2015, logging 125 games behind the plate after averaging 63 a year for the previous three seasons, when hamstring and hamate injuries got in the way. But he slumped miserably in the second half, posting a .197/.225/.315 line. He still ran into enough fastballs to make himself a power threat, but the pre-All-Star break Ramos and the post-All-Star break version were completely different people. Throw in the 16 times he grounded into double plays and his .235 average with runners in scoring position, and all kinds of red flags start popping up.
In the grand scheme of things, $5.3 million isn’t a lot of money to spend for a decent starting catcher, but Ramos’ second-half fall-off makes you wonder how long he’ll play with a curly W on his cap. Backup Jose Lobaton didn’t hit much - .199 with three homers and 20 RBIs in 44 games - but has the reputation as the superior defender of the pair, and gets high marks for his pitch framing. MLBTradeRumors.com expects Lobaton to earn $1.5 million through arbitration next season, a slight increase over the $1.2 million he earned in 2015.
Assuming those two arbitration estimates hold, that’s $6.8 million for two backstops, a drop in the bucket for a team whose 25-man opening day roster cost just north of $162 million. In the short term, that sounds fine. But good general managers think in both short, intermediate and long ranges, and Ramos could be in the unenviable position of pricing himself out of a job with another season or two of improved offensive performance and decent defense.
I don’t think there’s a chance that Ramos will be non-tendered. Right now, there’s just not a replacement ready to strap on the gear and split time with Lobaton, who’s shown he’s more capable when his reps are limited than when he has to shoulder much of the load behind the plate. But there’s always the chance that the Nationals sell high on Ramos and work out a trade, sending him to a team in need of a catcher who can both hit and play defense. That would probably mean at least two deals, since the Nationals don’t have a ready replacement at the upper minors.
Throw in the fact that incoming manager Bud Black was a major league pitcher who can appreciate the relationship a hurler develops with his backstop, and that the Nationals return a veteran-laden staff comfortable with throwing to the Ramos-Lobaton tandem, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Ramos return. He’s affordable (for at least another season), is more than an adequate defender and has shown he can hit in the majors.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is of the mind that it’s important to have capable catchers up and down the system. It’s just too important a position not to. It doesn’t matter if the guys at the upper levels of the minors are reserves or journeymen like Dan Butler or Steven Lerud, or unproven prospects like Pedro Severino. The thought is that a good catcher - one who can call a good game and defend his position - is worth his weight in shinguards.
Butler and Lerud basically split time at Triple-A Syracuse last season, combining to hit .203 with three homers and 49 RBIs. They’re definitely more organizational filler than guys who have a future in D.C., veterans who can work with promising pitchers and mentor young catchers. The most major league-ready catcher in the system is Severino, a 22-year-old who probably needs more seasoning because the only two games he’s played in above the Double-A level came in a September call-up with the Nationals. With Double-A Harrisburg in 2015, he hit .246 with five homers and 34 RBIs, nabbing 36 of 95 would-be base stealers.
Spencer Kieboom, 24, was the main catcher at high Single-A Potomac last season. Though the Nats think he could develop some gap power, he hit just .248 with two homers and 26 RBIs in a campaign shortened by concussion issues. Still, he caught 31 of 77 potential base thieves. At low Single-A Hagerstown, 22-year-old Raudy Read threw out 30 of 81 base stealers while batting .244 with five homers and 36 RBIs.
Given that the young catchers in the system are at least a couple of years away from contributing, there’s likely no reason to disrupt a pairing behind the plate that’s worked at the major league level. But Rizzo is also the kind of guy who thinks outside of the box and often does the unexpected. Remember the December 2011 deal that brought left-hander Gio Gonzalez from Oakland for four of the Nats’ top prospects? One of those trade pieces was catcher Derek Norris, a future All-Star who was once viewed as the Nats’ backstop of the future.