VIERA, FLA. — To prepare for the season he prays will be his healthiest yet, catcher Wilson Ramos returned this winter to where his career began. On the same baseball field in his home town of Valencia, Venezuela, where he trained before he signed as an amateur in 2004 at age 17, he and his younger brothers, Natanael and David, both minor league baseball players, helped him strengthen his legs.
They worked out. They ran in the outfield. They held an elastic band around Ramos’s waist and pulled him back as he ran to provide resistance. Then Ramos spent about a month playing in the Venezuelan winter league, serving as a designated hitter to save his legs for the season. This offseason, he no longer had to worry about knee rehab or hurting his hamstrings when running. He simply trained and played baseball, unwilling to allow injuries to define him.
“It’s been hard with all the injuries I’ve had but at no moment did I ever lower my head,” he said in Spanish at his locker at Space Coast Stadium. “I’ve always kept it up and worked hard to get here. If God lets it happen, this will be the year I’ll be behind the plate all season. I’m hoping it is.”
If the Washington Nationals hope to make a deep run in the playoffs, Ramos will certainly play a major part. The 26-year-old has the tools to be one of the best catchers in baseball — a powerful bat, a strong throwing arm and a good feel for calling pitches — but his body has betrayed him.
Ramos has played only 103 games over the past two seasons because of knee surgery in 2012 and two hamstring strains in 2013. When he did play last season, he was an all-around force. He hit .272, drove in 59 runs and hit 16 home runs in only 78 games, a home run rate that would have ranked in the top 10 in baseball if he had qualified. The pitching staff posted a 3.26 ERA with him behind the plate, a better mark than all of his backups. In games he started, the Nationals went 48-29, a .623 winning percentage.
His teammates believe he is simply one healthy year away from being a top-five catcher in the sport.
“He hasn’t played enough for his name to be out there,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “People know about him. Teams that we play, I guarantee you, everyone in the NL East, knows about him. Beyond that, I don’t feel like he’s got that national coverage yet. I feel like it’s been here and there, in and out with injuries. It’s just a matter of time before he’s a household name.”
To stay on the field as much as possible, Ramos believes he has found the right mix of nutrition, working out and stretching. During his rehab from knee surgery before last season, doctors suggested he lose weight to ease pressure on the joint. But with a leaner, muscular frame, Ramos believed he was faster than he actually was and he ran the bases harder than he should have.
“I think that’s what went wrong with my hamstrings,” Ramos said. “This year, I’m smarter. I know my pace will be the same. I know I’m not a fast runner or a base stealer but I know that I can run well to second on a double.”
After returning from his hamstring woes in the summer, Ramos started 23 straight games behind the plate (the longest in the majors in 2013), a streak that he believed was fueled by returning to his normal diet instead of eating only the food that helped him slim down. He had never hurt his hamstrings when he ate Venezuelan foods like arepas, traditional cornmeal patties often filled with meat. When he started eating his country’s food again, along with the healthy vegetables and lean meat, he felt happier and energized. He is listed at 235 pounds now, after replacing another five pounds of fat with muscle this offseason. It carried over into winter ball when he hit .309 with four home runs in 30 games with the Tigres de Aragua.
“After I got back from the injury, I added those five pounds and it helped me with my body,” he said. “It was muscle, it wasn’t fat. I could tell because I felt I was hitting the ball harder.”
Nationals Manager Matt Williams has told Ramos that he wants him to catch as many games as possible this season but will give him frequent rest knowing that catchers don’t often play in more than 120 games.
Only seven catchers in baseball played in at least 120 games last season. And only four of them — Baltimore’s Matt Wieters (134 games), St. Louis’s Yadier Molina (128), Kansas City’s Salvador Perez (126) and Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy (122) — started at least 120 games. The most Ramos has caught in a season is 108 games in 2011.
Ramos, however, hopes to set a career high in playing time this season. He also wants to notch at least 400 at-bats; the most he has reached in one season was 389 at-bats over 113 games in 2011.
“I know it’s not easy for a catcher to play more than 130 games but I’m coming in mentally ready,” he said. “I know I can be behind the plate for more than 120 games.”
Ramos has also been working recently toward an important personal goal, too. With the help of immigration lawyers, Ramos said he applied for his permanent U.S. residency earlier this month. The process can take a while. The eventual hope is to move his entire family to the United States. He has returned to Venezuela safely since his kidnapping in November 2011, but he wants to have his relatives safe and close by. It fills him with pride to play in front of them.
For the season opener, he also hopes to have his wife, Yeli, by his side. The two were married this winter in Venezuela and are expecting their first child, a baby girl, this summer. His parents have visas but his father has yet to see him play in the major leagues. Becoming a husband and soon-to-be father this winter has sharpened his focus, even as he trained for this season.
“I’m working three times harder because of the three mouths I have to maintain in addition to the seven at home I maintain,” Ramos said. “Aside from being happy about having a family and the blessing God has given me in a baby, I think I’ve grown as a person. It has helped me mature. I know it will help me in my job.”