Fans of the Milwaukee Brewers have gotten used to having an elite catcher behind the plate over the last several years. Jonathan Lucroy debuted with the team in 2010 and would go on to become one of the best players, not just backstops, in baseball. After parts of seven seasons in Milwaukee, the Brewers dealt Lucroy this past summer while continuing their rebuild project, giving fans a heartache as well as opening a big hole in the starting lineup.
As thing stand currently, the club would enter 2017 with a combination of Martin Maldonado, Manny Pina, and Andrew Susac soaking up the starts behind the plate. That trio performed okay down the stretch in 2016 following Lucroy’s departure, combining for an 84 wRC+ and 0.9 fWAR from the beginning of August through the end of the season. The Brewers could stand to add an upgrade behind the plate, however, and an opportunity to augment their lineup with a top-tier player on a short term pact should pique the club’s interest.
This winter was supposed to be a golden opportunity for Wilson Ramos, formerly of the Washington Nationals, to cash in on the open market. After a down year in 2015, the 29 year old bounced back in a big way this past season: 523 plate appearances, a .307/.354/.496 slash line (124 wRC+), 22 home runs, and a selection to the All-Star game representing the National League. But his season, and reasonable hope for a $100 mil contract, came to a grinding halt on September 27th when Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee.
Dating back to his debut season with in 2010, the Venezuelan native has been one of the more productive catchers in all of baseball. Ramos has appeared in 585 games and taken 2,304 turns at the bat during his career, hitting a cool .269/.313/.430 while slugging 83 home runs. That’s good enough for a wRC+ of an even 100, well above the typical 85-90 mark that the average catcher produces in a given year (it was 87 wRC+ in 2016). Ramos has crossed the double digit home run threshold in each year that he’s made at least 300 plate appearances. He doesn’t walk much at all (6.1% in his career) but he doesn’t strike out a ton, either (16.8% career K rate).
Besides being above-average with the bat for his position, Ramos is no slouch defensively. He threw out 37% of attempted base thieves this year and owns a 34% caught stealing rate over his career. Defensive Runs Saved (+13) and Fielding Runs Above Average (+42.5) both view him as a big positive through his first seven years in the majors, and Baseball Prospectus valued his pitch framing at +7.4 runs in 2016.
The rub against Ramos is his injury history. He’s torn the ACL he’s currently rehabbing twice - it cost him almost all of the 2012 season the first time and this time it will likely keep him off the diamond until at least next May. He’s had issues with his hamstrings in the past, as well. Ramos has played six full seasons in the major leagues since becoming Washington’s full-time catcher in 2011; he’s topped 100 games just three times.
Because of the uncertainty that his knee injury created shortly before hitting the open market, the Nationals declined to offer Ramos a qualifying offer and he hit free agency unencumbered by draft pick compensation. Ramos’ camp was seeking a four or five year deal prior to the ACL tear, but now with the injury the catcher is reportedly open to shorter-term one or two year offers in order to re-establish his health and hit the market again soon in search of that elusive payday. That could prompt a team like the Brewers to strike.
A rebuilding franchise in a small market should obviously be hesitant to hand out any big money, long-term commitments, but the Brewers are in a unique position. Milwaukee had the league’s lowest payroll last year at around $60 mil and have only two guaranteed contracts on the books in Matt Garza and Ryan Braun. The club has plenty money to spend, if it chooses to do so.
So how about a two year, $25 mil commitment to Wilson Ramos? Pay him $10 mil in 2017 while he misses the first month or two rehabbing his knee and then bump it up to $15 mil in 2018, when he figures to be fully healthy. If Ramos can regain his pre-injury form, then he becomes a valuable asset for the Brewers on a contract that’s far from prohibitive. He could work with the pitching staff and provide a big boost to the lineup, perhaps helping the Brewers make a push for the Wild Card in the near-term. Or if the team continues to struggle to win games, Ramos becomes a trade candidate who could net some more impact talent for the league’s best farm system.
The downside of a short-term pact is rather limited, as well. If Ramos comes back and his play on the field is diminished from the injuries or if he continues to break down physically, then it’s just some money spent during a rebuilding season when the payroll was already the lowest in baseball, anyway.
Wilson Ramos has shown himself to be an elite talent offensively and defensively in the major leagues, but he’s unlikely to get compensated like it during his first run through free agency thanks to a poorly timed injury. If Slingin’ Stearns is willing to get aggressive on the free agent market, the Milwaukee Nine could be the beneficiaries of Ramos’ misfortunes.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus