SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Washington Nationals will not extend the qualifying offer to Wilson Ramos, according to people with knowledge of the situation, making the all-star catcher a free agent. The Nationals had until 5 p.m. Eastern Monday to give him the offer, which is a one-year, $17.2 million contract. Had the Nationals offered it, Ramos would have had seven days to accept. Instead, Ramos will explore the free-agent market in search of long-term financial security immediately and his Nationals career may be over.
The Nationals proposing Ramos the qualifying offer — and Ramos turning it down — was a given this summer as he emerged as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball during his first all-star campaign. He was healthy and in great shape, putting himself in position to finally fulfill the potential that made him one of baseball’s top catching prospects when the Nationals landed him as part of a trade for Matt Capps in 2010. And with help from eye surgery to improve his vision, he posted career highs in batting average, on-base-plus-slugging percentage, home runs, RBI and games played. His 3.5 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs, was tied for third among catchers. Paying him $17.2 million for 2017 would have been a bargain.
Then he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second time in five years on a rainy night at Nationals Park on Sept. 26. His season, and possibly his Nationals career, suddenly ended in the cruelest of ways, two days after Washington had clinched the National League East title and on the brink of the postseason. This winter was supposed to be the 29-year-old Ramos’s chance to cash in on an optimally timed breakout season. Now he enters free agency in an unusual situation with questions surrounding his future.
When he underwent his knee surgery on Oct. 14, the Nationals announced his rehab timetable would be six to eight months. That range puts him in line to return sometime between mid-April and mid-June if the rehab goes as planned, which is not guaranteed. Ramos’s agent, Wil Polidor, recently said Ramos will be evaluated this week. As for when he is available, Ramos himself acknowledged that he’s probably better suited to play in the American League because he could split time between catcher and designated hitter after two surgeries on his right knee. That shrinks his potential suitors in half.
As a result, Ramos will not receive the monetary offers expected before his injury. The Nationals offered Ramos a three-year contract worth just north of $30 million in August, but Ramos declined it because he was seeking a four-to-five-year contract for a lot more money. He’s still seeking a long-term contract and can still secure one because he remains one of the best offensive players available in a scarce free-agent market. He probably won’t get one for the money he would have garnered before the knee injury, but teams won’t have to worry about relinquishing a draft pick to sign him because the Nationals didn’t issue him the qualifying offer.
The Nationals could still bring Ramos back if he finds the market drier than anticipated. If not, Washington could turn to Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino, or look externally for a replacement. Lobaton is eligible for arbitration this winter. He is a plus defender and one of the best pitch framers in baseball, but not much of an offensive threat. The athletic and lively 23-year-old Severino is the Nationals’ best catching prospect. He impressed down the stretch this season both offensively and defensively, but it was a small sample size and he never hit better than .250 in the minors until 2016.
Matt Wieters and Jason Castro highlight the free-agent catching crop. Trade possibilities include the Chicago Cubs’ Miguel Montero and Derek Norris of the San Diego Padres. Montero is due to make $14 million in 2017 before becoming a free agent, while Norris is eligible for arbitration after making $2.925 million in 2016. Both players have a history with Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo; the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Montero out of Venezuela when Rizzo was with the organization and Rizzo traded Norris to the Oakland Athletics as part of the package for Gio Gonzalez in December 2011.
Both players are also coming off down seasons and could be bought low. Norris, who will be 28 on opening day, hit .186 with a .583 OPS and 14 home runs in 125 games. Montero, 33, was supplanted on the Cubs’ depth chart and hit eight home runs with a .684 OPS in just 86 games.