Catcher Wilson Ramos, as expected, will undergo surgery today to repair a broken bone in his hand, Manager Matt Williams said this morning on his weekly paid appearance on 106.7 The Fan. Williams expects Ramos will miss four to five weeks.
Not even one game into the season, the injury dealt Ramos a cruel and unfair blow, and it forces the Nationals to adjust without one of their best players. Where do they go from here?
The Nationals will not be able to replace everything Ramos gives them. No team could lose a catcher with the potential to hit 25 to 30 home runs and plug in a similar player. Ramos’s skill set is rare, and the Nationals built around it. He blasted a home run once every 17.9 at-bats last year, and it was not a fluke. Per BaseballHeatMaps.com, Ramos’s fly balls traveled 309 feet on average, fourth-longest in the majors. The Nationals did not hit him cleanup opening day by pulling numbers from a hat.
The injury removes a middle-of-the-order threat and places a larger burden on the rest of the lineup. Every batter moves up one spot. Adam LaRoche, for example, becomes that much more pivotal. The Nationals’ deep lineup will help to compensate for Ramos’s loss. Williams talked all spring about the difficult he faced trying to find a No. 8 hitter. But the lineup will become thinner, especially when regulars receive days off.
The Nationals can thrive with Lobaton taking heavy playing time: He started 76 games for the 92-win Rays last season. He was a league average hitter last season, which is terrific if he’s your backup and fine if he’s your starter. The Nationals rate Lobaton’s ability to frame pitches highly, and Tampa’s staff enjoyed throwing to him. It will be a tall order for Lobaton to replicate Ramos’s effect on Nationals pitchers. In games Ramos started last season, the Nationals went 48-29.
The downgrade on days when Ramos would not have played, anyway, will be significant. Lobaton should hold his own as a starter. Will Sandy Leon hold his own as a backup? The Nationals would have started Lobaton once or twice a week. Rather than an average hitter taking those plate appearances, it will be Leon. Over the course of Ramos’s recovery, that will mean somewhere around 40 to 60 plate appearances.
Leon hit .322 with an .856 OPS in the minors two years ago. Last year, he battled an injury and hit .177 with a .542 OPS at Class AA. The Nationals regard Leon as an excellent defensive catcher who should overcome last season’s offensive struggle. The Nationals have enough faith in Leon and Class AAA catcher Jhonatan Solano that they likely won’t seek outside help behind the plate.
The Nationals can stay afloat without Ramos, and eventually they will welcome him back with about four months left in the season. He can and will have a major impact. The strongest immediate takeaway is frustration. Another bad thing happened to the last guy who deserves it, and that is not fair.