The Milwaukee Brewers had a mostly quiet week at the Winter Meetings. That wasn’t unexpected, given David Stearns’ tendency to look for bargain deals when he can. He himself admitted that he likes laying in the weeds until there’s an opportunity to make a deal.
That didn’t stop the club from having a face-to-face meeting with catcher Wilson Ramos during the meetings, though, as they look for an offensive upgrade behind the plate without having to pay a premium in prospects (for J.T. Realmuto) or money and draft picks (for Yasmani Grandal).
Ramos appears to be the target of choice for other teams that are thinking in a similar way, including the Oakland A’s, Minnesota Twins and New York Mets. Both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels have also been linked to him. After returning to All-Star form in the 2018 season, there will likely be enough competition for Ramos to potentially drive his price up beyond what the Brewers could be comfortable paying. MLB Trade Rumors is projecting Ramos to land a 3-year, $36 million contract this winter.
This is the 31-year-old’s chance to land the significant payday of which he was robbed following the 2016 season, when he looked to be on his way to becoming one of the top prizes on the free agent market that winter. He was hitting .307/.354/.496 for the Nationals that year, with an .850 OPS powered by solid on-base skills and a career-high 22 home runs and 25 doubles. He was looking at the possibility of a monster 5-year deal and possibly $100 million+ before he tore his ACL in the final week of the regular season.
That forced him to take a discount 2-year, $12.5 million deal from the Tampa Bay Rays, a contract that only paid him $4 million in the first year while he spent the first half of the season rehabbing the knee. Once he returned in June of 2017, he struggled to shake off the rust a bit, ending the year with a .260/.290/.447 line while seeing his defensive abilities understandably slip.
He rebounded in the second year of the deal this past season, though, once he was finally fully healthy. He hit .297/.346/.488 in 78 games with the Rays, earning his second career All-Star appearance. It was widely speculated at the time of his signing with Tampa that the Rays would try to trade him at the deadline of the second year of the contract, due to the backloaded nature of the deal paying him $8.5 million this past year. Despite his status as an impending free agent, the Rays were hoping to snag a quality prospect or two.
However, Ramos again got hurt, injuring his hamstring the weekend after the All-Star break. That put him on the disabled list for the rest of July, and he was still on the DL on deadline day, forcing the Rays to take just a player to be named later in return when they sent him to Philadelphia.
Ramos returned in August, but only played in 33 games for the Phillies in the second half while also missing a handful of games here and there due to other injuries. When he was in the lineup for Philadephia, he did hit exceptionally well, putting up a .337/.396/.483 line in that brief stint, but the 101 plate appearances weren’t enough to keep the Phillies in the NL Wild Card picture.
If you sensed a bit of a theme in the past few years, you probably aren’t alone. If you were to boil Ramos’ career to this point down into a few words, it would likely be “great, injury-prone bat.”
Therein lies the risk for any team looking to sign Ramos this winter, and especially so for a team like the Brewers, who seem to be limiting themselves to an Opening Day payroll in the $110-115 million range: do you guarantee three years and $12 million (or more) per year to a 31-year-old catcher who’s twice torn his right ACL and has had hamstring problems when the knee isn’t bothering him? Does he make much sense for a National League team that can’t use him at DH to help keep his legs fresh, or move him there permanently halfway through the deal if it becomes clear he can’t catch anymore?
Even if Ramos were to stay healthy during a significant commitment by the Brewers, Stearns would have to weigh whether the offensive benefits outweigh what they would be losing defensively.
Ramos has seen a dip in his abilities as a pitch framer in each of the past two seasons. Whether that was a side effect of an aging catcher whose knees aren’t feeling like they used to or just a result of switching organizations, Ramos rates behind the likes of Manny Pina and Erik Kratz in framing even when he’s at his best. For a staff like Milwaukee’s, which doesn’t have many guys who can blow hitters away with pure power, pitch framing has been a big reason for why they’ve been able to beat expectations. Swapping out Pina or Kratz for Ramos may only cost a handful of strikes here or there, but those add up over the course of a season — especially if those happen during key moments in games where a strike can be the difference between getting out of a jam or allowing several runs.
Baseball Prospectus metrics credit Pina with 4.8 framing runs in 2018, while Kratz was credited with 9.9 framing runs. Ramos barely graded out as above average this past season, at 0.3. When looking at the overall defense of all three using the catcher-adjusted version of Fielding Runs Above Average, Kratz (11.1) and Pina (6.3) well outpaced Ramos (0.9) in 2018.
While that’s still perfectly average behind the plate, the year and a half since Ramos’ most recent knee injury is still a far cry from where he was before it, when he had an FRAA Adj. of 11.4. It’s the fact that Pina and Kratz were so good in 2018 that brings up the real possibility of making the Brewers’ defense worse with his addition.
Considering the Brewers’ emphasis on run prevention, that’s not nothing. But it’s entirely possible that could be offset with his offensive production. In the grand scheme of things, average defense and above-average offense may end up grading out ahead of above-average defense and below-average offense, and adding Ramos to a batting order that includes Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw would go a long way in reducing the amount of easy outs in the lineup.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus