Dusty Baker told reporters at the Winter Meetings that he would miss veteran catcher Wilson Ramos, who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays this winter after injuring his right knee late last September, toward the end of his seventh season in Washington.
“He's a heck of a guy,” the Nationals’ manager said. “He's ‘Buffalo’. I hated to lose him, but business is business.”
Rays fans, Baker said, were going to love their new DH/catcher.
“He's a guy that was turning a corner in his career,” Baker said, “and one of the saddest days I had in my career and definitely last year is when he -- when we had to carry him off the field and I knew he was hurt and wasn't going to be able to play in the playoffs and wasn't going to be able to cash in on the great year that he was having at that time.”
Ramos followed up on a .229/.258/.358, 16 double, 15 home run, 0.4 fWAR 2015 season with a big .307/.354/.496, 25 double, 22 HR, 3.5 fWAR campaign in 2016. He was on his way to a significant free agent deal before the injury.
“He has learned how to hit,” Baker said.
“He was my two-out, RBI clutch base hit to right field, and that guy is slowly leaving the game. There are home run hitters, there are guys that do this and that, but that two-out, RBI single that you need, you know, to win the game, he's learned how to do that. He's learned how to get the sacrifice fly, he's learned how to drive in runs. I'm wishing him nothing but the best.”
Ramos settled for a bonus-filled 2-year/$12.5M deal with the Rays. Prior to his official departure, the Nationals acquired Derek Norris from the San Diego Padres with plans to make the veteran backstop the everyday catcher in D.C.
Norris, General Manager Mike Rizzo told reporters, is a candidate for a bounce back in 2017 after a down year in 2016 which saw him put up a .186/.255/.328 line with 17 doubles and 14 HRs in a -0.4 fWAR campaign following 2.2, 2.6 and 2.4 fWAR seasons in the previous three years.
“He’s got a great deal of ability that is going to play well in Washington,” Rizzo said.
“Norris is a former All-Star that we think has bounce-back potential. We know the make-up, we’ve loved the kid for a long time and we’re a lot deeper now at catcher than we were a couple of days ago.”
Norris acknowledged that he had big shoes to fill, and also said he knew the Nationals didn’t expect him to match the kind of numbers Ramos put up last season.
“Obviously Wilson had a great year, his hitting numbers were up there with some of the best in the last ten years of catchers,” Norris said, “so I’m not looking to come in here and say I’m going to hit .320 with 20 HRs and drive in 100. Who knows, it could happen, I’m not saying it is or is not going to happen, but the type of player I am, I’m a high-energy guy, I love the game of baseball.
“I look forward to taking this pitching staff to the highest level and working with them and getting to know them and driving in some runs and getting on base and win some ballgames, and that’s ultimately my goal and I think we share that in common.”
A 2007 Nats’ 4th Round pick, Norris, now 27, was traded to Oakland in 2011, then dealt to San Diego in 2014 before he returned to Washington this winter.
He said he wasn’t completely surprised to end up back with the Nationals.
“It was one of the teams that me and my agent had discussed might be a possibility,” Norris explained. “Given that, it didn’t seem like a reality that I would actually be able to go back here, being a dream of mine when I was drafted at 18, being able to play in this ballpark as my home ballpark was obviously my first dream as a National, so to be able to live that, I’m really looking forward to it.”
Backup catcher Jose Lobaton and young backstop Pedro Severino (referred to by Rizzo this winter as the “catcher of the future”) remain in the nation’s capital.
Lobaton, 32, avoided arbitration when he signed a 1-year/$1.575M deal this winter, after he put up a 232/.319/.374 line, three doubles and three homers in a 0.3 fWAR campaign backing up Ramos.
He filled in admirably after Ramos went down, and told reporters this winter that he gained confidence with what he was able to accomplish late in the season and in the NLDS.
“I feel like what I did in the end of the season made me feel good, made me have some confidence in myself when we went to the postseason,” Lobaton said.
“So I feel like overall, defensively I was good, and offensively, it’s always been my weak side, but I’m working on it.”
Severino, 23, played 82 games at Triple-A Syracuse, putting up a .271/.316/.337 line, 13 doubles and two home runs in 82 games and 312 plate appearances and then put up a .321/.441/.607 line with two doubles and two home runs over 16 games and 34 plate appearances in the majors.
Described as a defense-first catcher as he’s worked his way up, Severino said he made some important strides at the plate last season and he was looking to build on that.
“Every year I’m just working on my offense, so I can hit more than I can,” Severino said.
“My defense, I don’t want to say it’s the best, but I know it’s good.”
“I just want to keep working on my offense, try to get better and show everybody I can hit in the big leagues.”
Barring any further moves (and the Matt Wieters rumors likely won’t die until he signs with someone this winter), the Nats have depth behind the plate and a plan to move on from the Wilson Ramos era in D.C. How will it work out?