For much of the last 10 years, the worst position for a prospect to play was catcher in the Twins organization. Rob Bowen was a second-round pick two years before Mauer and wound up spending parts of five seasons in the majors, but he quickly was passed by Mauer after the Twins picked Mauer No. 1 overall in the 2001 draft. In the Mauer draft, Jose Morales was the Twins’ third-round pick as an infielder, but he started playing games at catcher in his second season and was moved there full-time by 2004. Morales finally stuck in the majors last season but had right wrist surgery in January, which is likely to sideline him through April.
That leaves the door open for the Twins’ latest catching prospect in the Mauer era, Wilson Ramos. While Ramos is on the 40-man roster, he’s behind catch-and-throw specialist Drew Butera, who has played full seasons at Double-A and Triple-A, in the Twins’ pecking order for being Mauer’s backup.
He also may be too good to spend time as a big league backup. Ramos has ranked as the Twins’ No. 3, No. 3 and No. 2 prospect the last three offseasons and further enhanced that status the last two offseasons playing winter ball in his native Venezuela, playing for Tigres de Aragua.
In 2008-2009, Ramos helped Venezuela win the Caribbean Series, batting .317/.331/.475 in the regular season and .385 in the first four games of the Caribbean Series. In 2009-10, Ramos took his play up significantly, batting .332/.397/.582 and ranking among the league leaders in RBIs and total bases (first, 49 and 119); slugging percentage (second) and home runs (third, 12). For his performance, Ramos has earned Baseball America’s Winter Player of the Year Award.
The next step for Ramos will be to carry over his winter success into the regular season. He started to do that in 2009 before two injuries hijacked his stint with Double-A New Britain. Ramos missed a month with a broken tip of his left middle finger, then missed nearly two more months with a hamstring injury.
Overall, he played just 54 games at New Britain and five more rehab games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. While he was added to the 40-man roster in November, he needed winter ball to make up for lost development time, said Twins farm director Jim Rantz.
“He was hurt a couple of times last year and only got a little more than 200 at-bats,” he said. “He’s a very aggressive hitter but he makes it work. It is nice to see he was a little more patient this winter, and that while he tweaked a knee down there, his team was careful with him and he didn’t catch all the time.
“He’s an offensive-minded guy and he has to get some time back there to improve his receiving and game-calling. Our reports indicate he did that, and he has an excellent throwing arm.”
Despite playing well for the Tigres, Ramos could not help them overcome an inefficient offense (they led the league in double plays and runners left on base), and Aragua failed to make the playoffs. Caracas added him to its roster for the playoff round-robin, and Ramos went 12-for-50 with two home runs. He didn’t play in the Caribbean Series this year.
A key factor for Ramos going forward will be learning when to use his aggressiveness, strength and bat speed, and when to lay off pitches. His plate discipline showed signs of improvement in winter ball. Overall, after drawing just six walks in 224 at-bats during the minor league regular season, Ramos drew 29 in 273 at-bats in Venezuela.
Both his offensive and defensive games need polish, and the 22-year-old likely will start the season back at New Britain, which he helped lead to the Eastern League playoffs a season ago. But if he shows continued improvement in the subtleties of catching and hitting, he’ll have a chance to back up Mauer in Minnesota on a team brimming with optimism after a productive offseason and entering a new ballpark, Target Field.
His main competition for the backup spot (with Morales sidelined) is Butera, the son of an ex-Twin (Sal Butera) and a fine defender who nevertheless has hit just .214/.296/.317 in more than 1,600 minor league plate appearances. Ramos is the greater talent, but he may not be better suited for the Twins’ immediate needs.
“What you do in those situations is let your players fight their way through it,” said Rantz, who has been Minnesota’s farm director since 1986. “Injuries certainly play a part in this game, but when an injury happens, you hope to have someone in place who can take advantage of the situation.
“Butera is ahead of him and is more polished, but Wilson’s got a chance. Once the major league staff sets eyes on him, you never know what could happen, if the manager likes the way you play. But around here, we’re more known for our pitching and defense.”