The Nationals come into Thursday with a 64-44 record and a comfortable seven-game lead in the NL East. They're doing that despite Bryce Harper's good but not truly great season. Early NL MVP candidate (favorite?) Daniel Murphy has picked up much of the slack.
Longtime catcher Wilson Ramos has been a huge piece of the offense as well. He's having a career year at the plate, hitting .331/.381/.536 (140 OPS+) with 20 doubles and a career high tying 16 home runs. Ramos was a deserving All-Star and is a key right-handed bat that balances the lineup.
The career year comes at a great time for Ramos, who will become a free agent for the first time after the season. The upcoming free agent class is very weak, and Ramos is the best of a group of catchers that includes Matt Wieters and Jason Castro, among others. He's having a phenomenal year and he's still only 28.
Ramos recently told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post he has not yet had any talks with the Nats about a long-term contract extension. From Castillo:
"They have told me absolutely nothing still," said Ramos, who was acquired as part of a package from the Twins in exchange for Matt Capps in 2010. "I'd like [to have my future here], but those are decisions they make ... They haven't made any calls or communicated with us. We're still waiting."
The Nationals will likely have to pay Ramos free agent money at this point since he is only weeks away from hitting the open market. Discounts are for players years away from free agency. Not weeks.
It's very easy to be skeptical of Ramos' production this season given his track record. After all, this is a guy who hit .229/.258/.358 (65 OPS+) just last season. There are reasons to think his breakout is legit though, and that makes his upcoming free agent case rather fascinating.
He can finally see again
Back in spring training Ramos underwent Lasik eye surgery, and he told MLB.com's Cash Kruth the procedure helped him at the plate immediately. From Kruth:
"More comfortable and I'm seeing the pitch really, really well after surgery," Ramos said Monday after homering in a 5-3 win over the Astros at Space Coast Stadium. "Now I can say the surgery helped me to be better at the plate."
"It's making me feel comfortable and making me feel excited, because before I was swinging at everything," Ramos said. "Ball, strike, I was feeling very bad sometimes because I'd say, 'That was a bad pitch, why did I swing?' Now I feel more comfortable at the plate. It's only four or five games after surgery, but I see the difference now."
If you can't see the ball, you're not going to hit the ball. It sounds obvious and it is because it's absolutely true. Baseball is a sport overloaded with finely tuned mechanics, whether it's a swing or a pitcher's delivery or even baserunning. It all starts with your eyes though. You need to see the baseball and Ramos is seeing the ball better than ever before.
The improvement in Ramos' eyesight has shown up not just in his raw production, but in his plate discipline. As he told Kruth, he was "swinging at everything" before, and that's no way to be successful. Check out plate discipline numbers:
| Walk Rate ||Chase Rate||Hard Contact Rate|
Ramos is swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone (chase rate) and the result is his highest walk rate since 2011 (8.7 percent), his first full season in the show. Keep in mind Ramos is still a fairly aggressive hitter -- the MLB average chase rate is 30.4 percent in 2016 -- but he's no longer a total hacker.
The improved plate discipline has not only led to more walks. It's also led to more hard contact. When you chase pitches out of the zone as much as Ramos did the last few years, the result is a lot of weak contact. Soft grounders, pop-ups, that sort of thing. When you lay off stuff out of the zone and attack pitches in the strike zone, you're going to hit the ball harder.
What's it going to take to sign him?
Quality catchers rarely hit free agency. Teams usually lock these guys up when they're young simply because it's so hard to find a good catcher. Only six catchers have signed multiyear free agent contracts with new teams within the last three years. Here's the list and how they compare to Ramos:
|Contract Year WAR||2.6||0.1||5.5||2.3||2.0||-0.2||2.9|
None of those six are good benchmarks for Ramos. Russell Martin and Brian McCann were established starting catchers with multiple All-Star selections. David Ross was a backup signed specifically to work with Jon Lester after he joined the Cubs. Dioner Navarro had bounced around a few years before reestablishing his value. Nick Hundley was a backup and Jarrod Saltalamacchia a decent starter.
Ramos falls somewhere between the Saltalamacchia and Martin/McCann group, so somewhere between $7 million annually and $17 million annually. That's a big gap! Split the difference and it's $12 million per season. That's Miguel Montero/Salvador Perez money, though neither of those two signed their contracts as free agents. They were extensions.
The Nationals figure to make Ramos the qualifying offer in the offseason, entitling them to draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere. The qualifying offer is expected to be a one-year contract worth $17 million or so this winter. Will Ramos get $17 million annually? Probably not. But he should be able to get a contact worth more than $17 million total, so declining the qualifying offer makes sense.
Ramos and his representatives wouldn't be crazy to push for a four or five-year contract worth $12 million or so per season this coming offseason. Not when you consider his age, the season he's having, and the fact his success this year could be the result of his recent Lasik surgery. His eyes are better and that's a tangible change that may explain his hot hitting. It's not necessarily a fluke.
Quality catchers are always in high demand and clubs like the Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, Astros, Mets, and Braves could all be in the market for a new backstop this winter. And the Nationals too, of course. They'll need to replace Ramos if he bolts. Ramos is in line to land a monster contract after the season, one year after it wasn't entirely clear he was a starting caliber catcher.