Since late January, Wilson Ramos has been in Viera, Fla. It’s a long way from chilly Washington, where he spent most of the offseason. He came here nearly three weeks before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on Tuesday for various reasons; chief among them is a burning desire to prove to the Nationals that he and his surgically-repaired right knee will be ready. He wants to show the team that by the end of spring training he will be physically able to regain his spot atop of the catching depth chart.
So he showed up to Viera before the rest his teammates, hoping to knock the rust of his swing, throwing and catching. Ramos, 25, has been here training and continuing his never-ending rehabilitation. On Monday, he played catch with newly-arrived teammates, took some swings, hung out in the dugout, shagged fly balls and emerged in the early afternoon sweaty from yet another workout.
“[I came early] to keep strengthening my knee and because I know this year is going be hard for me because of all the things I’ve got to do,” he said in Spanish. “And to show the team that I can keep playing. I need them to see that I’m ready to get back to my role.”
Ramos was recently cleared by his doctor, giving him permission to participate in all activities in spring training — but slowly and gradually. He said he can run and squat without pain. He has been doing agility drills without any issue. He has lost a bunch of weight around the core of his body. The sturdy-framed Ramos still weighs the same as before, about 250 pounds, but has replaced it with muscle, his shoulders noticeably more built than last season.
The only fear, he said, was a mental one. He is worried that when he blocks balls in the dirt he may hurt his knee again when it hits the ground. “I’m a little scared sometimes but that’s mental,” he said.
The Nationals, and Ramos’ doctor, have taken a cautious approach with his return from the May 2012 injuries to his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus. For the team, there’s no point in rushing Ramos back. Kurt Suzuki, the likely opening day starter, is a strong defender who proved to be a clutch hitter in the second half of the season. Suzuki, 29, will earn $6.45 million this season, a large chunk paid for by the Oakland Athletics, and has a club option for $8.5 million in 2014. The Nationals can buy out that option with $650,000 but the option vests at $9.25 million if Suzuki makes 113 starts in 2013.
Behind Suzuki, the Nationals also have a battery of capable back-ups. They signed veteran Chris Snyder to a minor league deal with an invitation to major league camp, joining the trio of catchers who served as back-ups last season at one point: Jhonatan Solano, Carlos Maldonado and Sandy Leon. So Ramos, even without the urging of his doctor, has reason to take his return to action slowly.
It will, however, take a continued conscious effort by Ramos. Players at this level are ultra-competitive and few things may motivate like wanting to regain a starting spot lost solely because of injury. Ramos is well aware of his limitations and how that pressure can in fact be a potential downfall. However, don’t be mistaken: Ramos still wants to be the No. 1 catcher.
“That’s still my goal,” he said. “I’ve still got two months to show them that I can be there by opening day. But I’m not going to pressure myself too much that I get hurt again and I’m miss another year.”
Ramos spent his offseason preoccupied almost entirely with his rehab. He made frequent visits to his physical therapist in Northern Virginia and to Nationals Park for workouts. He finally went home to Venezuela to visit his family, spending the better part of a month with them, for the first time since his harrowing kidnapping in Nov. 2011. He got to hang out with his younger brother, David, 21, who he helped get a workout in front of General Manager Mike Rizzo last May. (David eventually signed with the Nationals and pitched for the Nationals’ Dominican Summer League affiliate during the winter.) And, Ramos has watched seemingly endless amount of baseball games while out for the longest stretch of his career, hoping soon that he will crouch down behind home plate again soon in a game.
“I’m tired of watching baseball on TV,” he said.
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