It took until he was 28, with the help of some offseason discipline and eye surgery, but Wilson Ramos couldn’t have picked a better season for the best offensive production of his career than 2016, his final campaign before hitting free agency. The catcher’s all-star production placed him on the path to a huge payday, unforeseen for a player the Nationals contemplated replacing last winter after a string of injury-marred years. He finished with career highs in batting average, home runs, RBI, on-base-plus-slugging percentage and games played.
His stock, of course, plummeted in an instant near the finish line, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second time in five years on an inconspicuous play at home plate Sept. 26. Ramos was lost for the remainder of the season, his multiyear financial security seemingly snapping with the ligament.
Ramos, who turned 29 in August, hung around the club through its NLDS loss to the Dodgers and underwent knee surgery to repair the ACL on Oct. 14. The Nationals announced his rehabilitation is expected to take six to eight months, which places his return somewhere between mid-April to mid-June. His agent, Wil Polidor, said the catcher will undergo a four-week evaluation ending the second week of November — the same week as the general managers’ meetings in Phoenix, the unofficial start of the offseason — and should have a clearer timetable after the doctor’s appointment just in time to survey the market for contract offers.
That is assuming the Nationals don’t extend Ramos the qualifying offer, which is unlikely but possible. The qualifying offer, a one-year contract, is worth the average of the top 125 player salaries from the previous season, which is $17.2 million for 2017. Clubs have until five days after the conclusion of the World Series to make qualifying offers. Players then have seven days to accept. Teams can only make qualifying offers to players that spent the entire previous season with them — as a result, Mark Melancon, the Nationals’ other big-name free agent, isn’t eligible for it.
That leaves Ramos as the only one of the eight Nationals free agents in the conversation for the qualifying offer. Ramos receiving the offer was a foregone conclusion the morning of Sept. 26, a month after he turned down a three-year contract worth about $30 million. Getting the qualifying offer is now much less likely.
(Note: The qualifying offer rules could change with the new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA is slated to expire to December. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said recently that the new agreement should be reached by the end of the postseason. We’ll go with the current rules for now.)
If the Nationals take the risk to offer Ramos and he accepts, they will pay a catcher with significant health concerns $17.2 million for maybe half a season. If the Nationals make the offer and Ramos declines and signs elsewhere, Washington would receive a compensatory draft pick at the end of the first round.
“He came out of the surgery well,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said during a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “We’re going to see what the short-term rehab is. We’ll do all the due diligence on the medicals, which is the most important factor in what our plans are for Wilson. Once we get together with all the medical people that are involved, we’ll have a better idea of where we’re at with Wilson. Then we’ll employ a strategy that best fits our needs and the need to improve the ballclub in any way we can.”
Polidor said Ramos is seeking a four-to-five-year contract, which he could secure only if he were to reject the qualifying offer. But if Ramos declines it, his value on the open market will probably tumble even further because whichever team signs him would have to forfeit a draft pick. If the team that signs a free agent that declined the qualifying offer is outside the top 10 in the draft order, then the forfeited selection would be in the first round. If the team is in the top 10 or has already signed a player that had turned down qualifying offer, it would have to forfeit its second-highest pick.
An American League team set to pick in the top 10 in June’s draft would seemingly make the most sense for Ramos because the club wouldn’t surrender its first-round selection and Ramos could split time between catching and DH to avoid wear-and-tear. The Twins, Rays, Athletics and Angels are the four teams in that category.
Former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond is among the free agents who have had their market value plunge after turning down the qualifying offer since the system was implemented. Desmond rejected the one-year deal last year — worth $15.8 million at the time — only to sign a one-year, $8 million contract to play outfield for the Rangers. Desmond is a free agent again this offseason and is likely to receive the qualifying offer again after an all-star campaign.
Another scenario for Ramos is re-signing with the Nationals after rejecting the qualifying offer, perhaps to a multiyear contract for less guaranteed money per season but with incentives. Without Ramos, the Nationals could choose to go with Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino at catcher next year or acquire another catcher this winter. Lobaton, a veteran, and Severino, a rookie in 2016, are noted for their defense and game-calling but not their offensive exploits. Matt Wieters and Jason Castro are among the top catchers expected to hit free agency.