ST. PETERSBURG — New catcher Wilson Ramos seems determined to make the Rays' $12.5 million gamble in signing him pay off sooner rather than later.
Ramos said Monday he is already a month ahead of schedule in his recovery from Oct. 14 right knee surgery to repair his ACL and meniscus tears and is planning to be in the Rays lineup, as least as a DH, by early May, then later going behind the plate.
"The pace of my rehab, at the very least, I expect to be available for the team, getting at-bats, DHing, really from the beginning of May," Ramos said Monday, with the deal — that includes another $5.75 million in incentives — official. "The people doing my therapy (in South Florida) have been really impressed."
Rays officials, who had been planning a June or July, post-All-Star-break, return, are excited by the 2016 All-Star's optimism, though it's not unusual for injured players to envision more aggressive schedules.
"We never want to limit a player," senior vice president Chaim Bloom said. "We're very hopeful his forecast is the way it turns out."
To make room for Ramos, the Rays designated for assignment longtime but oft-injured top catching prospect Justin O'Conner, who, they revealed, has had two back surgeries since the end of the season related to ongoing disc issues and may not be able to play in 2017.
"It's been a battle for him," Bloom said. "Obviously it's not out of the question certainly that he's going to be able to be active in 2017, but we're a ways away from that right now."
O'Conner, a 2010 first-round pick, was limited to 20 minor-league games in 2016 due to a back strain. If O'Conner clears waivers, the Rays would be open to signing him back on a minor-league deal.
The incentives in Ramos' deal include some protection for the Rays, with a $2 million increase in his 2018 base salary (from $8.5 million to $10.5 million) based on starting 55 games at catcher and not going back on the DL due to the knee. There are other incentives for games caught and plate appearances.
• Bloom said the Rays remain "very active" in trade discussions since the winter meetings, though with "no timetable" for any deals. In addition to their starters, the Rays may now get more interest in closer Alex Colome — who would come at a high price — with Kenley Jansen re-signing with the Dodgers.
• The Rays' spring trip to Havana is featured in the MLB Network documentary Cuba: Island of Baseball that premieres 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.