The Padres have been linked to two shortstops this offseason. One was four years younger than the other, and still in some command of the tools that made him an All-Star-level player. But Ian Desmond is risky, and more expensive than $4 million guaranteed over one year with a mutual option for 2017. According to multiple sources, that’s the deal the Padres have agreed to hand Alexei Ramirez, who should be worth that price, no matter which Alexei Ramirez shows up.
One year, Alexei Ramirez hit 15 homers and stole seven bases. The next year, he hit nine homers and stole 20. And that’s not the only place where we’ve seen wild swings from Ramirez. He’s walked 2.6% of the time in a year, and 8.1%. He’s produced an isolated-slugging figure of .185, and also of .096. He’s swung and missed 10.7% of the time, and 6.5% of the time. He’s hit nearly one grounder per fly ball and also nearly two grounders per fly ball. He’s pulled the ball 38% of the time, and also 54% of the time. He’s shown below-average defense, and league-leading defense. He’s swung at 60% of the pitches he’s seen, and 49%.
Throughout it all, he’s recorded nearly 5,000 plate appearances and been above-average with the stick for a shortstop, and the third-best overall glove since he debuted in 2008. Even with all the oscillating, all the bad plate discipline, all the weird changes to his game, Ramirez has been above-average in all of his years save two — his first and his last.
And that’s the part that makes him so cheap. He’s 34 and was below replacement-level last year, and he plays a position that demands good defense — and defense peaks early. Maybe his drop from plus defender to scratch is real, and maybe his bat won’t get back to average for a shortstop. That would make his projection, for less than a win of production, about right. And that would make the deal only a minor win for the team.
But maybe that oscillation provides hope. His pull percentage was the worst of his career last year, and Jeff Zimmerman found that a declining pull percentage can be a problem for an aging player. But that finding is paired with a drop in contact rate, which is probably the skill at which Ramirez has excelled most his whole career, and which hasn’t gotten worse at recently. The only year that Ramirez had a worse-than-average swinging strike rate was his first. Take that year out, and he’s in the top-third of the league since 2009.
Maybe Ramirez finds his pull power again. He did end the season well last year. Probably not. His fly-ball rate has been steadily decreasing (even late last year), and his isolated-slugging percentage, even through the swings, has benefited from his home park. Look at the blue line for his away numbers.
Ramirez could at least benefit more from going the other way (his .264 batting average on balls in play last year was the worst of his career), which would make the projections light on his bat. He’s projected for a .281 BABIP, and his career number is .291. Here’s where the up and down nature of his career could aid him in producing much more value than $4 million-plus. Those extra 10 points of batted-ball fortune would turn him into the league-average shortstop bat he was in 2013.
But the constants of his career give it a high floor, even if the wild swings may be forecasting the end of that career. He’ll make contact, and he’ll play representative defense at shortstop, if not scratch. And, by all likelihood, he’ll be healthy — only Elvis Andrus has managed more plate appearances since Ramirez became a regular. He’s averaged 640 plate appearances over that time, and if you prorate his Steamer projection to that number, he’s basically a one-win guy. ZiPS has him worth almost two wins.
It’s a good move for the Padres, who need to bridge to some of the young players they just acquired, like Javier Guerra, the 20-year-old shortstop who should hit Double-A some time next year. For Alexei Ramirez, he has to re-establish his value and prove to other teams that his athleticism will give him a soft landing, even at 34 years old.
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