- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2016

The Washington Nationals had worked so hard to overhaul the physical care of their players. They signed a deal with a local medical company in the offseason. Fired the previous training staff. Even held a press conference to show their commitment to new-age thinking in player care and tout the trainers and doctors who would now massage and mend their players after 2015 was filled with injuries.

Yet, the best doctors can’t stop freak things. They can’t prevent starter Stephen Strasburg from a flexor mass strain and a partially torn pronator tendon in his right elbow in September. They could not soften All-Star Wilson Ramos‘ landing when the catcher jumped for a high throw Sept. 27 only to come down and tear the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second time. They can’t give the Nationals the perfect answer about each in the offseason.

Those two significant and late blows to the Nationals‘ postseason effort significantly thinned their depth in the first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers. No Washington starting pitcher was more effective against left-handed hitters this season than Strasburg. He held them to a .200 batting average. During the last three seasons, lefties have hit just .220 against Strasburg. He would have been a weapon against the left-hand heavy Dodgers, one that likely would have pitched instead of Joe Ross.

Removing Ramos from the lineup ticked shortstop Danny Espinosa up a position. He hit .143 in the series and struck out eight times in 14 at-bats. This after hitting just .209 with a .306 on-base percentage in the regular season. Often, Espinosa found himself hitting in critical situations because the catchers were flipped behind him in the batting order. That would not have been the case if Ramos was healthy.

Ramos had surgery Oct. 14 to repair his ACL, medial meniscus and lateral meniscus in his right knee. The Nationals project him to miss 6-8 months. Which leaves them trying to figure out who will catch next season.

Ramos is a free agent following his best season. He hit .307 with 22 home runs, finishing in the debate about who was the best offensive catcher in baseball this season. He reportedly turned down an in-season contract extension offer from the Nationals, gambling that he could receive more in the offseason. His injury undercut that strategy.

So, what do the Nationals do? They could extend him a qualifying offer, which is projected to pay around $17 million next season. That would be a very high price for someone who may not be ready to play until mid-season. Instead, Ramos is likely to hit the open market, which makes his return to Washington seem unlikely, though the Nationals were already encouraging Ramos to begin work at first base during the season, according to a person familiar with the situation. In the American League, Ramos could split time between catcher, designated hitter and first base, were he to show competence at the latter position. That seems a more logical home.

Without Ramos, the Nationals would be leaning on young catcher Pedro Severino next season. Backup Jose Lobaton is arbitration eligible and appears a candidate to sign another one-year contract. The offseason market for catchers is expensive and populated with aging options. Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters will again be a free agent. But, he will be 31 years old next May and costly. Wieters’ one-year deal in 2016 paid him $15.8 million. Of the top 10 catchers in OPS who are set to become free agents, only three are 29 years old. The rest were 30 or older.

In his limited time in the major leagues, Severino showed that he was not afraid of the moment or circumstance. He’s been in the majors to close consecutive seasons. Because of Ramos‘ injury, he was added to the postseason roster and started Game 1 of the National League Division Series. He won’t be 24 years old until the middle of next season.

As for Strasburg, he would not have been ready in time for the National League Championship Series. He was rebuilding his arm strength through the team’s recommended throwing program and had moved to around 35 pitches per bullpen session.

He went through the reverse of Ramos‘ situation. Strasburg stunned baseball when he signed a $175 million contract extension in May. That prevented him from becoming a free agent for the first time this offseason. Now, the Nationals are on the deep hook for the very skilled, oft-injured pitcher. Should he be healthy by the spring, Washington can move forward with Strasburg and Max Scherzer at the top of the rotation.

Whatever comes next, the absence of Ramos and Strasburg in the playoffs put a large dent in Washington’s chances. Only one is probable to be back, and he is a pitcher who will force fingers to be crossed.

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