VIERA, Fla. – Stephen Strasburg(notes) is on the shelf and Bryce Harper(notes) is on the farm, but the Washington Nationals have another building block expected to be among the best at his position for many years. Rookie catcher Wilson Ramos(notes) appears to have won a roster spot and will share time and gain knowledge from veteran Ivan Rodriguez(notes) in 2011, after which a full-time role is all his.
Fast forward a few years. Ramos will be the guy suggesting to Strasburg when to throw his hammer curve and when to throw his triple-digit fastball and when to mix in that heavy change. Ramos will be the guy coaxing young closer Drew Storen(notes) through the ninth inning. Ramos will be the guy snapping up Harper's laser throws from right field and making a tag at the plate. And maybe, just maybe, Ramos will be the guy jumping into his pitcher’s arms when the Nats complete a climb from worst to first.
Any ballclub building from the ground up requires a rock behind the dish, and Ramos will be a cornerstone. General manager Mike Rizzo extracted him from the Minnesota Twins last summer for closer Matt Capps(notes), the Twins hating the idea of parting with the talented young Ramos but desperate for bullpen help down the stretch. Besides, Joe Mauer(notes) is their catcher.
"Wilson is as important as anybody we have because of the position he plays," Rizzo said. "He's a big part of our plan."
Rodriguez will start on opening day and play as much as he's able at age 39. The rest of the time, he'll tutor his successor, who idolized him growing up. Ramos signed for $27,000 at 16 after being invited to a tryout the Twins held in his hometown of Valencia, Venezuela.
"I'm learning right now from Pudge," Ramos said. "We talk a lot. He has 20 years in the big leagues. There's nobody better I could learn from."
The learning curve is steep because his first priority is to learn his own pitching staff well enough to call an intelligent game. He then must learning opposing hitters by reading scouting reports, watching video, studying statistics and, above all, socking away tendencies while he's behind the plate. Lastly, he must study opposing pitchers so he can hit as well as possible.
It's a lot to absorb, and it takes a bright, confident and dedicated catcher to succeed on all fronts. No wonder rookie Buster Posey(notes) was considered so special last year by the San Francisco Giants.
"Wilson has a tremendous mind – that's the most impressive part about him," said Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein. "He's getting better with his personal relationships with each pitcher. When he's on defense he's playing defense, and when he's on offense, he'll shift to an offensive mind-set. He never lets one leak into the other."
The 23-year-old Ramos is a superior defensive catcher with a rocket arm. He threw out nearly half the runners who tried to steal in the minors. He hit for a high average in the minors and was spectacular in a brief call-up by the Twins – getting four hits in his debut and seven hits in his first two games, the first player in 68 years to do so – but he sometimes tries to pull too many pitches and could be more selective.
A few days ago, Ramos hit a home run but was angry when he returned to the dugout. The one great swing only reminded him of several flawed swings leading up to it.
"He'd gotten away from some fundamental things and he was mad at himself for it," Eckstein said. "He's very in tune with himself and what's going on."
Like many of the young Nats, Ramos is a player the front office can reasonably project to be an above-average major leaguer for many years. The trade shocked him at first, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized Washington offered a fast track to the big leagues and a clubhouse full of guys on the same path.
"I loved the Twins, but when they told me about the trade I was excited," he said. "They had Joe Mauer, and he'd just signed the big contract. I'm very excited about this team. It's a good feeling here and I'm glad to be part of it."
Ramos is being pushed by veteran backup Jesus Flores(notes) – who missed 20 months with a shoulder injury but appears fit – and 21-year-old power hitter Derek Norris(notes), who likely will begin the season in Double-A but ranks alongside Ramos as a top prospect. The Nationals are so deep that teams in need of a catcher are hounding Rizzo.
Young Houston Astros starter Jason Castro(notes) is out for the season with a knee injury. San Diego Padres reserve Gregg Zaun(notes) retired. The Kansas City Royals moved top catching prospect Wil Myers(notes) to the outfield and have little depth behind veteran Jason Kendall(notes), who is batting .140 this spring.
The Nats aren't the only potential sellers. The Pirates have been dangling Ryan Doumit(notes) to anyone willing to take on the bulk of his $5.1 million contract. The Reds have proven big leaguers in Ramon Hernandez(notes) and Ryan Hanigan(notes) and top prospects in Devin Mesorasco and Yasmani Grandel. The Angels could part with Jeff Mathis(notes) or Bobby Wilson(notes) if prospect Hank Conger(notes) is ready. The Rangers would trade Taylor Teagarden(notes).
The Nationals could deal a catcher before the season begins, especially if they received a proven pitcher in return. More likely, they would trade Rodriguez at the July 31 deadline, clearing the way for Ramos and elevating Flores or Norris. Rizzo is considering an eventual move to first base for Norris.
Meanwhile, Ramos continues his crash course.
"Competition is everywhere," he said. "All I can do is keep learning and keep playing. Every day when I look at Pudge, it reminds me I want to play in the big leagues for a long, long time."