New Tigers catcher Wilson Ramos, once kidnapped for 50 hours, excited about next chapter
The 2020 season was tough on so many levels, for so many players, Wilson Ramos included. His playing time was cut, to his surprise, and he slogged through one of the worst offensive seasons of his career. The two were not at all unrelated, he believes. And, oh, there was a pandemic that was more on the mind than OPS.
The 2020-21 offseason was just as tough for the newest Tigers catcher, who first had his $10-million option declined by the New York Mets, then had to sit by the phone day after day before signing a one-year $2-million contract with Detroit — just two weeks before spring training is to start, or at least supposed to start. The free-agent market has been at turtle's pace, given owners don't know when they'll sell tickets again.
Then again, catchers are traditionally tough, and Ramos more than most — never mind the myriad of injuries, a torn ACL included, he's overcome to be a positive WAR player in each of his 11 major-league seasons. The man was famously kidnapped in November 2011, in his native Venezuela, held for ransom for 50 hours before he was rescued by the government in a shootout with his abductors. Hugo Chavez got regular updates. Six were arrested.
"That was a tough situation over there, that was really crazy," Ramos said Monday, in his introductory press conference with Detroit media. "Especially when I got rescued.
"Days after I got rescued, it was tough to go out of my house. Everything I heard during my sleep made me scared. That was really tough. I just want to say thank God I came back with my family.
"I've already turned the page. I feel happy."
That happiness will continue, he hopes, with the Tigers, who made a starting catcher their priority as the offseason began. They scoured the market and considered Jason Castro, who signed with the Houston Astros, and old friend Alex Avila, who inked a one-year deal with the Washington Nationals.
Tigers brass settled on a fresh start, for a franchise hoping for the same — starting with its young stable of starting pitching prospects that Ramos now will be charged with helping guide to success.
He's already talked to one of them — "The lefty guy, Floyd, is that his name?"
Matthew Boyd. Close enough.
The rest of the conversations will start soon, and continue around the clock. Communication, Ramos said, will be key to him making an impact. At least, one of the keys.
"The first thing I want is to get a good communication with them and be on the same page. I did it in the past with the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets," said Ramos, who's also played for the Washington Nationals — catching ex-Tiger Max Scherzer's 20-strikeout game in 2016 against the Tigers.
"I know how to handle that."
The Tigers rotation, after Boyd, is expected to include some mixture of top prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, as well as Michael Fulmer and Spencer Turnbull, as well as free-agent signing Jose Urena — one of the Tigers' only other two free-agent signings pegged for the big-league roster (along with outfielder Robbie Grossman). Matt Manning could be on the way soon. Veteran Derek Holland, officially signed to a minor-league contract Monday, could also be a wild card.
But mostly, it'll be young guys Ramos, himself 33, will be working alongside.
There's definitely an excitement to that, as well as challenges.
"It's gonna be a good challenge," he said. "My locker will be open 24/7."
With any catcher, priority No. 1 is defense and handling the staff. Any offense is a bonus.
But for Ramos, offense is key, too. He's had as many as 22 homers and 80 RBIs in a season, and twice has had an OPS over .800.
The 2020 season, he hopes, was an outlier, slashing .239/.297/.387. He had five homers in 45 games.
An intense offseason workout regimen, much of it done alongside the face of the Tigers franchise and fellow countryman Miguel Cabrera — they've known each other and worked out together for more than a decade — is aimed at paying dividends in that part of his game. He's dropped about 30 pounds, down to 245 from 275.
Ramos, who gives the Tigers three right-handed-hitting catchers along with Grayson Greiner and Jake Rogers, also continued to fine-tune on his swing, specifically aimed at elevating the baseball — even in Comerica Park, where flyballs often go to die. That's not a concern, Ramos said. The swing is designed just to make good contact, not necessarily hit home runs. He likes going to right-center, and that's the biggest part of Detroit's ballpark. His friends have joked with him that he's likely to increase his career triple total of two.
"That's what I'm working on right now," Ramos said of his swing, adding that he's already talked with manager AJ Hinch about playing every day — another key, he believes, in fixing his offensive woes. "Last year, I was trying to work out to try to keep the ball more in the air. That was a crazy year. I wasn't able to think too much. We were mostly concerned about not getting infected. That was a tough year."
And if anyone knows tough, it's Ramos.