Wilson Ramos established himself as the Washington Nationals' no.1 catcher over the course of 113 games and 435 plate appearance in a .267/.334/.445, 22 double, 15 HR, +3.0 fWAR season in the nation's capital in 2011. After just 25 games and 96 plate appearances in 2012, however, the then-24-year-old backstop suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee. With Ramos sidelined, the Nats used catchers Jesus Flores, Carlos Maldonado, Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano.
In August, however, the NL East's first-place Nats felt the need to bolster their catching corps by acquiring veteran backstop Kurt Suzuki from Oakland in a deal that sent catching prospect David Freitas to the A's, who'd acquired the Nats' top catching prospect, Derek Norris, in the Gio Gonzalez deal the previous winter of 2011.
Entering the 2013 season, Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo explained in an MLB Network Radio that he felt the team had two no.1 catchers. "We do see Ramos as the future behind the plate for us," Rizzo explained, "Zuk is a marvelous handler of the pitching staff. He's got an extremely high baseball IQ. He's an energy guy and an upbeat guy and we think that he's going to get back to the .265-.270, 12-13 HR guy that he was with Oakland."
Rizzo also said at the time that he was comfortable with the catching depth in the organization behind Ramos, who worked his way back from the knee injury to return in time for Spring Training, and Suzuki. "We've got two guys below in [Jhonatan] Solano and [Sandy] Leon below [Ramos and Suzuki] that we feel have a chance to be everyday catchers in the big leagues some day," Rizzo told the show's hosts, "so we feel fortified at that position."
Though Ramos came into spring training at 100% and was able to start on Opening Day, he injured his hamstring early in April and went on the DL with Jhonatan Solano called up from Triple-A Syracuse. Ramos returned to the lineup two weeks later, but a second hamstring injury landed him on the DL for the second time in the first two months of the season in mid-May.
Over the month and a half Ramos was sidelined, Suzuki got the bulk of the work behind the plate, but once Ramos returned in early July and started hitting, as Davey Johnson put it, he had a hard time leaving the 25-going-on-26-year-old catcher out of the lineup. Between July 4th, when Ramos came off the DL, and August 23rd, when Suzuki was traded back to the Athletics in return for 22-year-old RHP Dakota Backus, Ramos put up a .304/.326/.496 line with six doubles and six home runs in 33 games and 129 PAs.
"'Wilson has kind of taken over that everyday spot. He wants to be that guy that plays each and every game'" Rizzo told reporters including MLB.com's Bill Ladson after sending Suzuki back to Oakland. '"Being that we have [Jhonatan] Solano as a very capable Major League player, we thought it was a good opportunity for us to forgo four weeks of Suzuki and get ourselves a prospect out of it.'" Nats' skipper Davey Johnson talked often toward the end of the year about what a difference Ramos made when he came off the long DL stint.
"He's been missed," the 70-year-old skipper said, "[Kurt] Suzuki did a great job, but he wasn't the kind of player Ramos is... Ramos is really a strong no.1, one of the best catchers in the league."
The fact that Ramos was able to stay healthy and play every day was important, Johnson told reporters in a mid-September press conference. The now-26-year-old catcher had something to prove. "You can get labeled as injury-prone," Johnson explained. "For him to come back and catch as good and as often as he has, just proves his point. He's durable." The stretch of 23-straight starts late this season, the longest stretch of consecutive starts by a catcher in the majors in 2013, drove the point home.
Ramos finished the season with a .272/.307/.470 line, nine doubles and a career-high 16 HRs in 78 games and 287 plate appearances over which he was worth +1.8 fWAR. His previous high home run total was the 15 he hit in 435 PAs in 2011.
With Suzuki gone, however, it's Ramos then Solano, who had a .214/.245/.279 line in 40 games and 148 PAs at Triple-A this season and a .146/.180/.188 line in 50 PAs in the majors, and Sandy Leon, who had a .177/.291/.252 line, 12 doubles and three home runs in 95 games and 361 plate appearances at Double-A Harrisburg, on the Nationals' depth chart behind the plate. With Ramos' injury history, is that enough?
Do the Nationals need to add a veteran catcher this winter just in case Ramos can't stay healthy and in the lineup? Can the Nats take the risk that they'll end up with Solano and Leon behind the plate for any long stretch should Ramos suffer another injury?
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