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Signing Ramos Shows Rays’ Willingness to Take a Risk

A healthy Ramos could be transformative

MLB: Washington Nationals at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas came early in Tampa Bay as the Rays reportedly agreed to a two-year, $12.5 million deal with slugging catcher Wilson Ramos that can reach $18.25 million through incentives. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported that Ramos will make $4 million in 2017 and $8.5 million in 2018 with $5.75 million in possible incentives.

While the deal is pending a physical — no sure thing for a catcher coming off a serious knee injury— it shows that the Rays are willing to spend money when potential rewards are high.

Ramos, 29, enjoyed the best season of his career in 2016, slashing .307/.354/.496 with 22 home runs, 80 runs batted in, and .850 OPS. in 131 games — all career-highs. He also produced the best wRC+ among MLB catchers (124) and Ramos’ 3.5 fWAR — a career-best for him — was tied with J.T. Realmuto for third best among backstops, behind Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy.

After making his first All-Star team, Ramos’ breakout campaign was seemingly a precursor to a multi-year, significant-dollar off-season contract. However, the Venezuelan receiver suffered a torn ACL in his right knee on September 26, ending his season and likely delaying his 2017 campaign.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

While reports out of Ramos’ camp signal he could be MLB-ready by April or May, Topkin noted that a June or July return is likely. Should Ramos pass his physical and take his spot on the Rays’ 40-man roster, the team’s offense and defense will significantly improve. His name alone improves a Rays’ receiving unit headlined by Curt Casali and Luke Maile.

In an off season where ace Chris Archer -- whose name has swirled through trade rumors — called the team out for its lack of spending, Ramos is possibly the first of many steps to upgrade the team.

Upside

If Ramos’ knee is healthy, his home run power will be a welcome addition to the Rays lineup. Since 2014, Ramos has produced 48 HRs; in contrast, a collection of seven Rays backstops produced 43 HRs in that time. Casali, who has amassed 420 plate appearances in that time, leads all Rays catchers with 18 HRs since 2014.

Ramos’ signing moves the Rays from No. 28 to No. 17 on FanGraphs’ depth charts; 256 plate appearances out of Ramos project for a 1.5 fWAR.Thanks to Ramos’ unique circumstances, the Rays were able to land him on a team-friendly contract. For reference, here are some recent deals that catchers who entered free agency after hitting at least 20 HRs in a season received.

  • Brian McCann, 2014-15 Off season (Five Years, $85 million)
  • Russell Martin, 2013-14 Off season (Two Years, $17 Million)
  • A.J. Pierzynski, 2012-2013 Off season (One-Year, $7.5 Million)
  • Jorge Posada, 2007-08 Off season (Four Years, $52 Million)
New York Yankees Introduce Brian McCann Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Martin was coming off a down season and Pierzynski eclipsed the 20-homer plateau for the first time in his career the year prior, leaving teams reluctant to give a catcher in his mid-30s a significant guarantee. McCann and Posada, however, were viewed as long-term solutions for the Yankees.

Ramos now has the chance to get one-and-a-half years of production under his belt before entering free agency again at age 31.

Downside

Ramos’ torn ACL was not his first. He previously tore his ACL and MCL during the 2012 season, limiting him to just 25 games. In 2013, a pair of hamstring injuries limited him to just 78 games. The following year, a broken left hand limited him to just 88 games. Injuries have been a problem for Ramos — and the primary reason why the Rays were able to sign him to an affordable multi-year deal.

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Defensively, Ramos rates anywhere from slightly below average to average as a catcher. According to Baseball Prospectus, Ramos’ arm has led to strong caught stealing totals but his blocking and pitch-framing rank in the middle of the pack. While he does not bring the defensive prowess of a Jose Molina or Rene Rivera, Ramos’ strong bat should compensate for any defensive shortcomings.

Overview

Rays fans have watched players like Castro, Thames and Cecil, all potential Rays targets, go to other teams. Signing Ramos, arguably one of the highest upside players on the market (health concerns notwithstanding) gives Rays fans something to be excited about. If healthy, Ramos could surpass John Flaherty's team record of 14 HRs as a catcher in a season, and ensure that the catcher slot is no longer a near certain out.