NEW YORK — Wilson Ramos is the best catcher the Rays have ever had.
And they are not likely to have him much longer.
Sure, it's a matter of dollars.
But also one of sense.
The season and a half Ramos has spent with Tampa Bay has been mutually beneficial, and set to be further validated Sunday when he is elected as the starting catcher on the American League All-Star team. And then, sometime before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, it will be time to say goodbye.
Ramos has shown, with the Rays' help, that he is back to his 2016 form.
Before the devastating late-season knee injury that changed so much, when he was a first-time All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner with Washington.
And when he was positioned to be the top free agent catcher on the market at age 29, turning down a reported three-year, $30 million extension from the Nationals in search of greater rewards.
"It cost me a lot, especially in my free agent year, and I was having a good year,'' Ramos said Sunday, reflecting on the injury. "For a moment I felt so bad because I was working so hard to try to make my dreams come true. Just one week before the season was over and everything is gone. It was hard to believe it.
"But I'm still here. I feel great now. I feel like I'm still fighting for that dream.
"And I'm still young. I feel good. I feel healthy. That's all I need to show everybody what I can do.''
So, sure, Ramos can talk about how he would like to stay with the Rays. How comfortable he feels playing for them and enjoys being a leader. How much promise he sees in their young core and success in their future.
But it also sounds quite clear that he expects — two years and another surgery later — to cash in on the free agency jackpot he was denied, maybe in the range of $40 million over three years. (Not that the consolation prize was too bad, making about $15 million over the two years from the Rays after spending the first half of 2017 rehabbing.)
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The Rays, as you might have noticed over the years, are not in the business of paying top-of-the-market prices. And, as well as Ramos has played this season, posting impressive numbers at the plate — .291, 12 homers, 45 RBIs — and some improvement behind it, they are not going to do so for a catcher who will be 31 going into next season with two knee surgeries in his file and some flaws in his game, such as pitch blocking. It's not the kind of investment they typically make, and in this case, not one they would be wise to do.
The obvious solution — the one that seemed part of the plan all along when the Rays made the bold and stunning signing — is to trade Ramos.
Get back another talented piece or two for that future that finally might be arriving and get off the hook for the $5 million or so still to be paid.
Even Ramos sees it coming.
"I know this business a little bit, and it's hard to not be thinking about a trade, not thinking about free agency because probably that's going to happen soon,'' Ramos said. "But I don't want to think about that, put that in my mind. I want to keep doing what I'm doing, keep coming to the plate feeling good, doing my drills, keep doing what I'm doing behind the plate. Trying to do my job.
"There's nothing better than to let the numbers speak.''
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The most obvious trade partner, coincidentally — and, if it's going to happen, much to Ramos' delight — is the Nationals, who need a frontline catcher and, waking up Thursday with a worse record than the Rays, a spark.
The Nats, natch, have other options, topped by Miami's J.T. Realmuto and, lesser, Oakland's Jonathan Lucroy. But there also are other teams that, due to injuries or other reasons, could have interest in a top-shelf rental. Maybe Houston — with Brian McCann hurt — or Boston, or Milwaukee, or Arizona.
So it might be incumbent on the Rays not to get too greedy in trying to win a deal and not be left with any. To balance their desire not to give Ramos away or to eat too much money with being realistic with what they can get back.
They went through that during the spring in trading pitcher Jake Odorizzi and outfielder Corey Dickerson for lesser-than-expected returns.
But there is no real reason for the Rays not to trade Ramos. (And certainly not, as some have asked, because they don't have anyone ready to step in.)
They're not going anywhere with him. Even with their recent success, before losing two of three to the Marlins anyway, they were still 15 games out of first place in the AL East on Thursday and 11½ behind Seattle for the second wild card.
It's too big of a gamble to keep Ramos to get draft-pick compensation. Unlike last year's decision with pitcher Alex Cobb, Ramos is much more likely to take the one-year qualifying offer for around $18 million.
And as for not having an advanced catching prospect ready to join their other young players, that has been a yearslong issue that maybe they can address in other ways (cough, Chris Archer, cough) over the next few weeks.
Ramos and the Rays did well for each other. The All-Star Game selection would be a just reward for all. And then (if not awkwardly before) it will be time to say thanks and best wishes.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow TBTimes_Rays.