In what has become a trend in recent years, the Washington Nationals saw little-to-no-production out of the catcher position in 2018.
Incumbent starter Matt Wieters appeared in just 76 games after undergoing hamstring surgery that forced him to miss two months. The rest of the starts were split up between Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom, each of whom finished the season with an OPS below .650.
Wieters, who signed a one-year/$10.5 million deal with Washington just before the 2017 season (which included an option for a second year at $10.5M), is now a free agent, freeing the Nationals of his pricey contract and allowing them to sign a new starting backstop. The market for catchers is somewhat thin, but one of the biggest names available is none other than 31-year-old Wilson Ramos — the former Nationals All-Star.
While the Nationals’ willingness to spend money will likely hinge on Bryce Harper’s free agency decision, Ramos could still be an attractive option because of his offensive ceiling and status as a fan favorite. However, as much as the D.C. faithful might want him back, the signing would be a risky one for Washington.
The Buffalo played for both Tampa Bay and Philadelphia this season, hitting .306 with 15 home runs and 22 doubles across 111 games between the two clubs. Although he spent a chunk of time on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, it was the first full season for Ramos since he tore his ACL in what would be his final game for Washington back in September 2016.
The Nationals were rumored to be considering Ramos as a trade target at the non-waiver deadline, so the interest is there. Ramos even told The Washington Times in June that he “would be happy” to be traded back to D.C. and enjoyed his time with the organization.
Between Ramos’ age and injury history, he likely won’t command a deal longer than three years. Francisco Cervelli set the market for catchers of his caliber when he signed a three-year, $31 million deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016 — when he was 30 years old. Ramos has a stronger resume than Cervelli did, so he’ll likely aim for something in the $40 million range.
The Phillies can’t offer Ramos a qualifying offer after he was traded midseason, removing any draft-pick compensation from the table. The Nats will also certainly be able to afford him after seeing $85 million of 2018 payroll come off the books this offseason.
But Ramos’ injury history is a disturbing one. The torn ACL in 2016 was only the culmination of a long string of issues, which also included multiple hamstring strains, a torn ligament in his right knee and a fractured left hand. As result, the Buffalo has only played in over 125 games in a season twice and 90 or fewer five times.
Without the luxury of a designated hitter, the Nationals would be forced to either stick with Ramos at the catcher spot throughout the tenure of his deal or shift him to first base when Ryan Zimmerman’s contract ends after next season (or after his 2020 team option). Yet if the point of signing Ramos is to fill the hole at catcher, there wouldn’t be any sense in signing him only to change his position a year or two later.
The only other everyday starter available on the free-agent market will be the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal, who’s played 125+ games in four of the past five seasons and trails only Buster Posey in OPS by a catcher (.778) over that span.
Grandal turns 30 in November and will certainly be more expensive, making him a risk himself. But if the Nationals are serious about filling that void with an offense-first player then he’s the much safer bet.
There’s also the question of Kieboom, who hit .333 over 14 games in September and is a strong defensive backstop — especially in preventing opponents from running all over him. Kieboom’s 41% caught-stealing rate would’ve ranked second in the majors this season if he had enough innings to qualify.
Washington could opt to sign a low-ceiling player such as Kurt Suzuki, A.J. Ellis, Nick Hundley, Martin Maldonado or Devin Mesoraco to share time with Kieboom behind the dish. It could also take a gamble on a name like Brian McCann or Jonathan Lucroy to see if one of them can rediscover their former selves. None of them would present the level of risk Ramos does.
Because the catcher spot has been such a nightmare for the Nationals in recent years, it’s easy to see why Ramos would look like the perfect match for his former club. But the front office has already once signed a catcher who underwent a major surgery in Tommy John two seasons prior, and Wieters will forever live infamy among Nationals fans for his slew of injuries and high salary.
Washington should swallow the tough pill and look elsewhere, because — as the Nats know well — an injury-prone catcher can quickly become a burden.