Yesterday, the Marlins officially declared themselves sellers, as they shipped Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante off to Detroit for a group of prospects headlined by pitcher Jacob Turner. Within hours of completing that deal, rumors began to swirl that teams were also scouting Josh Johnson and that the Marlins were definitely open to moving Hanley Ramirez. Johnson makes sense for contenders shopping for a non-rental starting pitcher, and I expect he’ll be in heavy demand over the next week, with the Marlins able to command a strong return for their ace if they do decide to move him. However, when it comes to their mercurial third baseman, finding the right fit for a deal isn’t going to be quite as easy.
The primary issue with trading Ramirez is that he simply hasn’t been very good for a couple of years now. Since the start of last season, he’s hit just .245/.328/.405 in 776 plate appearances, good for a .323 wOBA that puts him in the same class of hitter as guys like Jeff Francoeur, Bobby Abreu, and Johnny Damon. That’s a far cry from the .393 wOBA he posted from 2006 to 2010, when he was on the same level as Mark Teixeira, Jim Thome, and Ryan Braun.
Ramirez’s regression at the plate last year was mostly written off as a function of injuries, as he spent time on the DL with back and shoulder problems, and ended up playing in just 92 games last season. However, he’s been healthy enough to play regularly this year, and his performance is nearly identical to what he posted a year ago. While he’s gotten a bit of his power back, it’s come at the expense of fewer walks and more strikeouts, so the overall package has still just added up to an average hitter.
Some players can be extremely valuable while producing league average offense — Elvis Andrus and Matt Wieters, for instance — but Hanley Ramirez is not a good defensive player, and the move to third base hasn’t seemed to help him much. In addition, his previous exploits running the bases have slowed way down, and he’s only been successful on 34 of 48 stolen base attempts the last two years. A 70% base stealer isn’t adding much in the way of value, so right now, Ramirez’s entire value is tied up in how well he hits. And for that kind of player, a league average wOBA just won’t cut it.
So, any team acquiring Ramirez has to be willing to accept that present day Ramirez is not the Ramirez of several years ago. He’s just 28, so there’s reason to believe that he could rebound, but that’s more hope than substance at this point. Today’s version of Hanley Ramirez is an average player without a defined position, and one that is due $31.5 million over the next two years. At that kind of price, you can’t just hope that there’s some rebound potential — you need it to be likely in order to justify the salary, especially if the Marlins are going to ask for legitimate talent in return.
Given what’s left on his contract, there are probably two kinds of deals that make sense for Ramirez — a large revenue team just taking his contract off Miami’s hands for little or no talent in return, or a smaller revenue club surrendering a real prospect in exchange for the Marlins paying some of the freight to ship him out of town. Given that the Marlins just opened their new stadium and don’t want to bring back memories of previous cost-cutting fire sales, the latter probably makes more sense, as it’s easier to convince your fan base that you aren’t going cheap if you’re kicking in cash in order to give the fans a shiny new young player with which to identify.
So, that’s the criteria – small-to-mid revenue team in need of an upside play on offense that is willing to sacrifice future talent in an effort to upgrade in the short term. Ken Rosenthal suggested the Oakland A’s, but they might be too small in terms of revenues to make it fit. They opened the year with a $53 million payroll, and so even if the Marlins picked up $5 million each of the next two years, Ramirez would represent 20% of their total Major League budget. You can make that kind of bet on a superstar, but probably not a guy with the risks associated with Ramirez. The Marlins would probably have to eat something closer to $8-$10 million per year to make it work for the A’s financially, and at that kind of cost, the Marlins asking price in terms of talent might be too high to have it make sense for a team that might just be in the wild card trap.
The Orioles also have been mentioned as a possibility, but Wilson Betemit offers a very similar average-offense-and-bad-defense combination at the hot corner, and the Orioles have more pressing issues elsewhere (read: pitching) if they’re looking to upgrade. They have the payroll necessary to take on most of Hanley’s contract, but they’re probably better served focusing on other parts of their roster and continuing with the youth movement, given that sustainable success in the AL East requires a commitment to developing from within. I wouldn’t count them out, but I think there’s a better fit for Hanley within their same division, just across the northern border.
The Toronto Blue Jays have been perpetually stuck in the middle of the AL East, and while Alex Anthopolous has done a remarkable job of undoing some of the damage done to the organization before he took over, the team has yet to make the leap from solid team to legitimate contender. Their firm stance on long term contract avoidance means that their upcoming payroll flexibility might be better used to acquire a player already under contract rather than trying to negotiate for a coveted player in free agency. And, as we’ve seen with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto is a terrific place for a talented right-handed power hitter to get his career back on track.
Whatever They’re Calling The Skydome Now inflates home runs by right-handers by 5%, triples by 21%, and doubles by 2%, so the Jays would offer a nice landing spot for Ramirez to start tapping into his previous power once again. And, as we’ve seen from their willingness to take Colby Rasmus and Yunel Escobar, the Jays aren’t afraid of taking players that have worn out their welcome with their previous organization. In terms of environment, Toronto is probably one of the best possible places for Ramirez to get his career back on track.
The question would be positional fit. With Brett Lawrie catching everything hit towards third base, Ramirez would probably have to change positions again in order to fit in Toronto. That would leave the team with two options: give him his old job at shortstop back or convert him into the outfielder he was meant to be from the start.
Yunel Escobar hasn’t hit much this year and it’s rumored that the Jays wouldn’t mind getting rid of him, so the team could make a pair of moves that swaps out defense for offense at short and hope that Lawrie has enough range to compensate for the fact that Ramirez isn’t much of a shortstop. The defensive downgrade might outweigh most of the offensive gains, though, and they’d be selling low on Escobar, so instead, the Jays should push for Ramirez to accept a new role as an outfielder.
As a strong armed athletic guy with speed who struggles making basic plays on ground balls hit right at him, the outfield is almost certainly where Ramirez would have his most defensive value. In fact, with a bit of work, it’s not hard to see Ramirez becoming a quality defensive outfielder, as he has the physical tools to run down balls in the gap that most corner outfielders can’t get to. While the Jays are currently experimenting with Anthony Gose and Travis Snider in the corners while Jose Bautista is on the shelf, neither have Ramirez’s present offensive abilities and they probably don’t have his upside either.
Gose, in particular, might be an intriguing trade chip for the Marlins, where he could take over as their center fielder of the future, a position that is currently blocked in Toronto by the presence of Colby Rasmus. He’s the kind of talent that they’d likely eat a substantial portion of Ramirez’s contract in order to acquire, and a Gose-for-Ramirez-and-lots-of-cash swap could end up being beneficial to both franchises.
With Bautista, Encarnacion, and Ramirez, the Jays would have three right-handed bats who can take advantage of the ballpark, and a career resurgence from Hanley could propel the team into legitimate contender status. They probably won’t run down the Yankees this year, but a move like this could make their September games a bit more interesting and set them up to make a run at the division title for the next several years.
Ramirez has his warts, but that’s the main reasons he’s available to begin with. The Blue Jays have overlooked downside in a chase for talent before, and if they’re willing to do it again, they could end up buying low on a talented player who could push them into relevance once again.