January is typically the doldrums of the MLB offseason. Never mind that it is just a few days until the two-year anniversary of the Nationals’ signing of Max Scherzer: At this point in the offseason, most teams have made their moves and are filling their teams out around the edges. The Nationals have surely already made their biggest move in offloading several top prospects for Adam Eaton.
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This is the second of three parts in my offseason preview series. If you want to know more about the methodology, check out part one here. You should also just read it anyway! How did you even get to part two first?
With the conclusion of the World Series, the offseason is officially here. Although 2016 ended in disappointment for the Nationals, the team doesn’t lose a lot heading into 2017 and figures to once again be in the mix for the 2017 World Series. Like most teams, the Nationals have some work to do around the edges, like solidifying a bullpen that loses a few arms and replacing some of the bench players. But the big moves for the Nationals will be dictated by their answer to the following four crucial questions.
Coming into this year, it seemed that Wilson Ramos’ time with the Washington Nationals was winding down. The talented but often injured catcher was coming off the worst offensive season of his career and looked likely to get lost in the shuffle.
This season has presented a different case, however. In the midst of what is by far his most productive year, Ramos enters Tuesday’s action with a .338/.387/.556 triple-slash line, 18 homers (already a career-high), and a 147 OPS+. Both the Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs version of WAR put him just under a total of four, which is another career-high.
One year is just that — one year — but it might be enough for the Nationals to bring Ramos back long term. Ramos, who turns 30 on Thursday, has a few factors working against him on the free agent market, but a four-year deal seems like a reasonable target, perhaps with a salary in the $15-$17 million range. (Brian McCann’s five year deal with the New York Yankees is my model, cutting one year off because of Ramos’ injury history.)
Agreeing to a long-term deal with Ramos is not ideal in some respects, because of his injury history and the fact that — if his offense takes a dive — his defense will not be enough to offset the decline. Yet, it may play out in a scenario in which both player and team find that a reunion is a mutually beneficial option.
The ability to sustain a high value could prove tough for Ramos over the length of the contract, but that might not stop the Nationals. For starters, even if he fails to live up to this year’s production, Ramos is still likely to contribute more offensively than the typical catcher. He is also familiar with the pitching staff, which gives him an advantage in an organization where there is no obvious replacement for the starting role.
The Nationals work hard at developing catchers, but as the farm system stands, the team is faced with several good options defensively, including Triple-A Syracuse’s Pedro Severino and Double-A Harrisburg’s Spencer Kieboom. However, neither has developed offensively to the point where they stand out as major-league ready starting catchers.
For Ramos, the reason for returning may turn out to be equally compelling. The upcoming offseason’s market for catchers is similar to ones of past years—loaded with names, but thin on talent. Of the prospective free agent catchers, the best comp to Ramos might be Matt Wieters, whose offensive production has taken a dive in recent weeks. The Baltimore Orioles seem unlikely to replace Wieters with an expensive option, and there are no obvious potential matches for Ramos. (I’m assuming that Jonathan Lucroy’s $5.25 million club option will be picked up by the Texas Rangers.)
Perhaps an unforeseen team will include Ramos as part of a spending spree, but recent history suggests that that is not always the end-all solutions—just ask this year’s Arizona Diamondbacks, or last year’s San Diego Padres. Furthermore, the free agent market as a whole is not particularly robust, so whatever resources teams have might not go toward a catcher approaching 30 and instead be allocated in a trade.
There are a lot of unknown variables that could play out over the next several months. For now, however, it seems like Ramos is bound to stay in DC a little longer.
The Washington Nationals visited some old friends this week, splitting a series with the San Francisco Giants and former National Denard Span, and decidedly sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks, for whom former manager Matt Williams coaches third base. It was a busy week with the non-waiver trade deadline smack in the middle and an off day sprinkled in for good measure and extra off-field escapades. Anthony Rendon got kids to the eye exams, the Nats met Willie Mays, and we all said goodbye to Felipe Rivero and his infinite potential to welcome sturdy veteran closer Mark Melancon.