When it comes to shortstops, the National League is stacked. Troy Tulowitzki is generally accepted to be one of the game’s best players, and it was no surprise when he was selected first overall in ESPN’s Franchise Player Draft on Wednesday. The NL also boasts Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins and a revitalized Jose Reyes for those who like guys who can run, and Stephen Drew‘s production at the position is one of the reasons the Diamondbacks are surprising contenders in the NL West. Toss in 21-year-old Starlin Castro, and there will be some tough decisions to be made when it comes time to pick who will represent the Senior Circuit at the position in next month’s All-Star Game.
Over in the American League, however, it’s a different story. Derek Jeter is the big name but his skills have eroded to the point that he’s barely contributing anymore, and the rest of the teams in the Junior Circuit field shortstops who are mostly anonymous to the national public. However, there’s one shortstop in the AL who deserves more recognition than he’s received to date and has shown that he’s good enough to hang with the big boys at the position.
Alexei Ramirez has quietly become the best player on the White Sox and is perhaps the best-kept secret in all of baseball. How underrated is he? He’s not even in the top five in voting at the position for next month’s All-Star Game, although at this point, he’s clearly the best shortstop the AL has to offer.
Since the beginning of the 2009 season, when the White Sox shifted him across the bag from second base to shortstop, Ramirez has posted the highest UZR of any player at the position in either league, even ahead of defensive specialists such as Cesar Izturis, Elvis Andrus and Brendan Ryan.
And unlike that trio, Ramirez can actually hit.
He’s not quite Tulowitzki at the plate, but Ramirez has legitimate power; he averaged 18 home runs per season during his first three years in the big leagues. He combines above-average power with quality contact skills, allowing him to avoid strikeouts and keep his batting average at a more than respectable level. Ramirez has never been the most patient hitter at the plate, but he’s nearly doubled his walk rate from last year, and he’s currently only seven walks away from tying his entire 2010 total.
Even as offense around the league has decreased the past few years, Ramirez has continued to improve, and he is now on pace to have the best season of his career. In fact, the 2.7 wins above replacement that he has accumulated so far this season is second only to Reyes among shortstops in MLB. This isn’t just a flukey hot start to the season, either — Ramirez has been legitimately terrific for several years now.
Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Ramirez has posted 9.3 WAR, the fourth-highest total of any shortstop in baseball, American League or National League. The only players ahead of him? Tulowitzki, Ramirez and Jeter, and I doubt you’ll find too many people who think that Jeter is still a high-quality player at this point in his career.
And yet, Ramirez is never mentioned as one of the best in the league at the position. Perhaps it is partially due to the fact that he spent his rookie year as a poor defensive second baseman who made a lot of mental mistakes, or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t fit the mold of a high-profile player. He doesn’t have the flair of Reyes or make as many highlight-reel plays as Andrus, but the reality is that Ramirez has produced at an elite level since moving to the position.
Reyes is going to cash in on the scarcity of shortstops in baseball this winter when he lands a monster contract as a free agent, but his signing will only continue to reinforce how valuable Ramirez is to the White Sox. After getting away with paying him just a total of $6.3 million over the first four years of his career (including just $2.75 million this season), the White Sox were able to lock up the next four years of his career for a total of just $32.5 million, a fraction of what Reyes will get in the free-agent market this winter, and just a drop in the bucket compared to the massive 10-year, $157 million contract the Rockies gave Tulowitzki.
Not only is Ramirez producing an an All-Star level for the White Sox, he’s doing so while earning a fraction of what he’s worth, and the contract extension he signed will keep it that way for the foreseeable future. Underappreciated and underpaid, Ramirez is truly one of the game’s hidden gems.
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