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Spring Training Stock Watch: Ross and Ramirez

Spring training is fun. It is simultaneously the best of times (your favorite team doesn’t stink yet) and the worst of times (that player you were excited to watch this season is already out for the year). Every spring we see former stars trying to hang on to what once was (Johan Santana), and youngsters on the verge of their own meteoric rise (Javier Baez).

While it is exceedingly true that spring training stats don’t matter much, it is not true that spring training itself does not matter. It does matter. Quite a lot. What matter most are the storylines (scouting reports, projected playing time changes, etc). It’s still very early in the spring, and everything is subject to change, but with that in mind let’s look at two players whose stock may rise this month.

When we checked in on the Rangers rotation, Robbie Ross didn’t garner a mention, a misdeed that Rangers fans rightly pointed out. He should have been mentioned, both because the Texas rotation was so unsettled and because he has a real chance to not only start, but to be effective for those in very deep leagues.

Ross has been essentially a two-pitch pitcher in his 127.1 innings of relief over the past two seasons in Arlington. He works mostly off of his fourseam fastball (throwing it 80 percent of the time), which sits at 92 but touches 95. He’s used his hard slider with 18 percent of his remaining pitches. Both offerings are solid, and have enabled him to post sub-4 marks in ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, you name it, but nether are elite (whiff rates of 9.05% and 13.96%, respectively). So far it sounds a lot like I’m describing a reliever, and that may turn out to be the case.

But there is one important distinction here that makes Ross a player to watch for me this spring: the fact that he hasn’t thrown more than a smattering of changeups over his major league career, and that he has been a two-pitch pitcher for the Rangers, does not mean that’s all he is capable of. Said in a less clunky way: Ross has only used two pitches because that’s all he’s needed to use. Back when he was a pitching prospect, Ross had a changeup. It wasn’t great, and it was inconsistent, but he had one.

More importantly, he says he’s worked on the pitch over the past two years even though he hasn’t actually thrown many. In his own words, from an ESPN.com story in February:

“The changeup was way better [in the Dominican]. I always tried to throw them and work on them when I wasn’t in the game, but when I got in a game, I threw my two best ones — fastball and slider.”

It’s true that every pitching prospect at least messes around with a changeup at some point, but not all of them have changeups that flash plus potential. And while Ross has only thrown 17 in the big league regular season, his 17.65% whiff rate on that small sample is also encouraging. (Or at least it is not discouraging).

It’s also worth noting that Ross does not come with LOOGY platoon concerns. He’s seen more action against opposite handed batters, and had more success against them (50 IP, .339 career wOBA against vs. lefties, 77.1 IP, .256 wOBA vs. righties). So it’s not like this is the case of a LOOGY masquerading as a possible rotation piece, and it is quite unlikely that we’re looking at a left-handed ROOGY, although that would be kind of neat.

With Matt Harrison missing some spring time with back soreness (the injury that kept him out all last season) and with Colby Lewis also returning from a lost year, the opportunity may be there for Ross to break camp in the rotation. From there, anything is possible.

Of course Ross has only gone three innings one time as a major leaguer, let alone turn a lineup over multiple times, so there are a great many question marks here. But he has said he’s going to work on his offspeed stuff this spring, and it seems like that will determine whether he can be a useful starting pitcher or if he’s destined for a career in the bullpen. At least we know what to watch for.

We also know what to watch for with Mariners starter Erasmo Ramirez, although his story is more messy. A popular sleeper pick last offseason due to a very strong small sample size run in 2012, Ramirez had a year to forget in Seattle. He was injured in spring training, causing the team to go with less heralded starters Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan out of camp.

He made his debut in July, but wasn’t quite the same pitcher he was a year prior. Most notably, his control sagged from fantastic (a well-below average mark of 5% in 2012) to mediocre (a barely below average 8.1% last year).

As our own Mike Podhorzer noted earlier this winter, Ramirez used a curious mix of pitches when he returned to the major leagues last season. His changeup is his best pitch (22.13% career whiff rate according to BrooksBaseball), but he used it less, and instead threw more of his slider, which was much less effective than it had been a year prior.

Reader Choo offered a notable comment on Podhorzer’s January post:

Erasmo lost the feel for his changeup last season. During his first 6 starts, he threw it 20% of the time, about the same as 2012. But if you watched him, you might have noticed it wasn’t the same pitch – less break (PITCHf/x backs this up), less command, and more contact. For his final 7 starts he only threw the change about 12% of the time, replacing it with more breaking balls.

To the naked eye, Erasmo simply looked like a pitcher trying to survive, and adjusting, without his usual stuff. The increased 2-seam usage is encouraging as his 4-seamer is pretty flat, but I rediscovering his change will be the key in 2014.

So then, keys for Ramirez this spring:

1. Health.
2. Control.
3. More changeups, and the 2012 version of his slider.

As a result of injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker, Ramirez should be a lock for the Mariners rotation this time around (assuming he’s healthy). The shine may have worn off for many (and given that his ADP is close to 400, that seems to be the case), but he still presents an excellent opportunity for profit.