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Half-full, half-empty: Hanley Ramirez

11/20/2014

How do we think of Hanley Ramirez these days? After winning National League Rookie of the Year honors with the Marlins in 2006, he was one of the best players in the game from 2007 to 2009, hitting .325 while averaging 29 home runs and 38 steals per season. He finished second in the MVP voting in 2009, carrying an undermanned Marlins team to 87 wins. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, he trailed only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Alex Rodriguez in value over those three seasons. He was, at the time, on a Hall of Fame track, a power-hitting shortstop with speed.

After that came injuries and some attitude problems and a trade to the Dodgers in 2012. We see bursts of the young Ramirez: In 2013, he played just 86 games but hit .345 with 20 home runs and finished eighth in the MVP voting. In 2014, he battled several nagging injuries and played 128 games, hitting .283/.369/.449 with 13 home runs.

Ramirez turns 31 in December. Jim Bowden predicted a four-year, $76 million contract for Ramirez. Others have estimated that he'll get something closer to $100 million.

Let's take a closer look.

HALF-FULL

In this era of declining offense, having a shortstop who can hit in the middle of the lineup is a rare luxury, and Ramirez can still hit. His wOBA ranked 25th in the majors in 2014 among qualified hitters and his park-adjusted metric wRC+ ranked 21st. When you focus just on shortstops, Ramirez's numbers are even more impressive. Only Troy Tulowitzki had a better triple-slash line, and only Tulowitzki, Jhonny Peralta and Ian Desmond topped Ramirez in isolated power.

Ramirez has a good approach as a hitter -- he draws some walks, doesn't strike out excessively, sprays the ball around the field and punishes pitches labeled as "soft" by ESPN Stats & Info. Here's his heat map against soft pitches in 2014:

Ramirez hit .331 against soft stuff, the second-best mark in the majors among qualified hitters behind Jose Altuve. Only seven batters hit .300. Only Mike Trout had a higher wOBA. This is a smart hitter, a guy who has the ability to adjust at the plate. To me, it all adds up to a hitter who should age well. A four-year contract takes Ramirez from his age-31 season through age-34. Indeed, the Steamer projection system predicts a .277/.352/.450 line in 2015, a nearly identical match to his 2014 numbers. Get him away from Dodger Stadium and it's possible that line jumps even higher as he hit .303 on the road in 2014 and .352 in 2013.

As for Ramirez's defense, he's never been a Gold Glove candidate. He was credited with minus-9 defensive runs saved in 2014, or minus-12 per 1,200 innings. That's admittedly near the bottom of the league, but it's not Derek Jeter-level or Yuniesky Betancourt-level bad. Plus, he makes up for it with his bat, and in this age of increasing strikeouts there are fewer balls in play anyway. He ranked sixth among shortstops in WAR in 2014 and second in 2013.

Ramirez should be able to handle shortstop for at least a couple of more seasons without completely wrecking his value or inflating a pitching staff's BABIP to unacceptable levels. Or, if a team doesn't want him for shortstop, he can move to third base, where his bat still plays.

HALF-EMPTY

Well, this is pretty obvious. The defense is terrible, bordering on brutal. Despite his athleticism, Ramirez has never had the range you want from a shortstop, and now that he's on the other side of 30, he's certainly not getting any quicker. Factor in the injuries and his defense could really crater over the next few seasons.

Speaking of injuries ... do you really want to pay $20 million a season for a guy who misses so many games? He missed 34 games in 2014, 76 in 2013, 70 in 2011. He has played at least 145 games just once in the past five seasons. If you sign him, you better have a good backup on hand.

There has been talk that maybe Ramirez could move to the outfield. That sounds nice, but that kind of move rarely happens. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago: Since 1960 no player has played 400 games at both shortstop and left or right field (Robin Yount did make the transition to center field). The only player who really moved from shortstop to a corner outfield at this stage of his career was Hubie Brooks.

So the idea that Ramirez will move to the outfield in his 30s is rather unprecedented. More likely, if he moves, it will be to third base. Yes, his bat is OK there, but it's not as valuable as shortstop -- and there's also the possibility that Ramirez can't handle the position.

Teams interested in Ramirez may include the Mariners, Astros, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Giants, Padres and White Sox, with a return to the Dodgers a possibility as well.

What do you think? Is Ramirez worth the investment as run-producing shortstop or is his defense too shaky and the injury risk too high?