Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
Assuming the Position 2005: Part 4 - Third Base
by Derek Smart
At the time it occurred, the trade that made Aramis Ramirez a Cub (Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and cash (!) from Pittsburgh for Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback, and a player to be named - eventually Bobby Hill) was widely viewed as an outright win for the Cuddly-Bears. Chicago got a young starting third baseman and a veteran center fielder/leadoff man for the stretch run in exchange for a journeyman infielder and two minor leaguers with low ceilings: it couldn't be clearer who came out on top.
Yet clearer it became in 2004. Forgetting about what the Cubs received for a moment, look at what the Pirates did with their booty:
Jose Hernandez played out 2003, hitting a dismal .223/.282/.326 in 213 PAs. The Dodgers signed him in 2004.
Matt Bruback was released at the end of August 2003 and claimed by the Padres.
Bobby Hill hit .266/.353/.339 in 267 PAs in 2004 while pinch-hitting and spot starting at second and third.
What the above list means, when factoring in the Cubs' loss of Kenny Lofton to free agency, is that less than a year after the trade was consummated the deal had become a straight-up swap of Aramis Ramirez - with some Pirates cash - in exchange for Bobby Hill. If that unfairness isn't great enough for you, by the end of the 2004 season the deal could be characterized as a player who justifiably received some down-ballot MVP votes for a utility infielder. That's not just unfair, it's downright criminal.
The Pirates should have known they were getting fleeced, but should they have understood the degree of their deprivation? Let's take a look at Aramis' last few seasons and see what we can see:
I started this table with Ramirez' first full year in the Majors, which also happened to be his breakout, 23 year-old season. I've also split his time with the Cubs and Pirates in 2003 to make a point.
The thing that jumps out at me immediately is the spike in both isolated power and plate appearances per strikeout upon his arrival in Chicago in 2003. It's a definite uptick in his peripherals, although the significance of that can be lost when focusing only on his loss of batting average and the accompanying drop in his OBP.
After the trade, he makes more contact, harder contact, and he's walking a bit more to boot. I'd argue that he's playing better despite nearly identical Equivalent Averages, and that the gains he made when he joined the Cubs, while mitigated by small sample size issues, imply that he was verging on becoming more like the player that made people take notice in 2001.
In their defense, Pittsburgh had seen relatively little to give them confidence that the young masher of two seasons prior was due to make a re-appearance. Ramirez was owed $6M in the year to come, and with a desire to keep payroll in the $30M range (the reasonableness of that conceit is a topic for another discussion) and Jason Kendall's unfortunate contract still on the books and exponentially more difficult to be rid of, one can feel sympathy for their plight and begin to understand their decision. Was Ramirez likely to be more productive than other options that were or would be at their disposal? Certainly. But would the increase in output be worth the extra financial outlay? The Pirates thought not.
Yet had they peered closely enough, there was reason to be optimistic about Ramirez' future even before the move to the Windy City. First, the big drop-off from 2001 to 2002 was due in large part to an ankle injury that he played most of the season with. There's also sizable improvement from 2002 to 2003 as he works to find the stroke he lost while he was hurt, with the gains coming nearly across the board. These gains are made more impressive when one takes into account the .239/.317/.370 line he posted in April of 2003.
Clearly, there were signs that Ramirez was on his way to fulfilling the promise of his big season in 2001. Not only was there a performance boost, he was still 25 at the time of the trade. The Pirates chose to ignore this information and pay closer attention to the bottom line than to the re-blossoming of their young third baseman's talent. Nothing was guaranteed, but for a team willing to look deeply enough, and willing to take the financial risk, there was the potential for a big reward.
But nothing in that performance record prepares us for the quantum leap Aramis makes in 2004.
Until this past year, the 2001 season was the yardstick Aramis was measured by - the level of performance that all expected from him and were disappointed when he fell short of. But Ramirez set a new, loftier standard for himself by posting career highs in all of his rate stats, as well as some counting stats like runs scored, home runs, and walks. Had it not been for the groin injury which plagued him during the season's second half, he would have almost certainly set career marks for hits and RBI as well.
There was something for everyone to love, so whether they're new school sabermetricians or the most hardened old school RBI man, never again will pundits wonder where the 23 year-old Ramirez went, because the 26 year-old version stomped the young'un into the Wrigley Field dirt.
But is this leap forward permanent or, like Daylight Savings Time, destined to fall back? For starters (and mostly for fun), I took a look at Ramirez' BBRef page to see who his comps were through age 26. There's not a single bad player on there, and only two that are kind of average - Jim Tabor and Larry Parrish, although Parrish had a couple of really nice years sprinkled in the mix.
The rest are solidly better than average, with a couple of guys who are/could be marginally considered for the Hall of Fame - #6 Dale Murphy, #5 Scott Rolen, and #1 Gary Sheffield. It's always a good sign when Alex Belth has seen fit to nickname your best comp "The Punisher." (As a side note, I think it's interesting that seven of the top ten comps played over 450 games each at third base.)
The other encouraging aspect of his re-animation is the way his progress comes from every direction. Aramis had more power, more patience and made better contact than at any time during his career. Granted, the advances are huge, and it's not unlikely that he'll lose some ground here and there, but because the forward movement was so broadly based, the chance that most of that growth will be consolidated is greater than if he, say, simply hit for a higher average.
As if the offensive improvement wasn't enough, Ramirez also managed to become much more reliable with the glove - or rather, with his arm. What I saw in the final months of 2003 was a third baseman who was solid with the leather, had mediocre range, and an arm as strong as it was erratic. During the 2001-2003 seasons, Ramirez' fielding percentages were .945, .946, and .929 respectively - dismal by any standard - and mostly due to throws so wild that the first basemen he played with should have been equipped with radar.
But last year, he got his FP up to .969, which is not only a vast improvement, it's right in line with defender extraordinaire Scott Rolen's career .966 mark. In the off-season, Aramis was able to make great strides in bettering his footwork, which was the root of his throwing problems. As a result, fans behind the visiting dugout were treated to far fewer souvenirs from Ramirez' hand. Of course, the addition of Derrek Lee at first must have been helpful in reducing the Third Musketeer's error total, but to my eye the main reason was his ameliorated form.
Unfortunately for Aramis, error totals and fielding percentage aren't the be all end all of defense, and despite making fewer mistakes, it appears he also got to fewer balls. 2004 was his first full season below league average in Range Factor (2.17 to the league's 2.35), and it also marked the worst Runs Above Average of his career with -13 (and since I made the Rolen comparison earlier, the Cardinal third baseman's RAA in 2004 was a ridiculous +19! That's three wins difference between the two on defense alone.).
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that some of Ramirez' overall defensive falloff was due to a decrease in his range caused by the groin injury he suffered in July. I fail to see how a man playing third base, where you must rely almost entirely on the quickness of your reaction to a batted ball, can be unaffected defensively by a lingering infirmity in that area.
With the healing of that injury, I'd expect his range to be closer to the merely decent level of previous years, and combined with his more consistent throwing, we should see a defensive third baseman whom we can safely call average.
What the Cubs are left with now is a decision: Ramirez is in his last year before free agency, so do they lock him up now, or wait to see if his improvement carries over to 2005?
I'd expect to see the Cubs deal with this situation much like they did with Kerry Wood and Derrek Lee last season, both of whom were arb eligible and in their final year before free agency. Jim Hendry hates submitting figures to an arbitrator, let alone reaching the hearing room. So, like with Wood and Lee before him, I'd expect Ramirez to sign a one-year deal before the numbers are due, then to reach a multi-year accord before the end of spring training.
As far as money and time go, I'd expect a four-year pact that pays out in the $32M-$36M range. My source on that is the voices in my head, so combined with this year's newest hit, Salary Bubble 2: Electric Bugaloo, the number I've given you should be considered as reliable as Tommy Flanagan. Still, I think it's a fair estimate of where it will fall.
Aramis Ramirez is the first man to make Cub fans think of Ron Santo as a third baseman rather than the third baseman. That alone is worth a few million dollars, and if Ramirez continues to play the kind of baseball he's clearly shown he's capable of, he'll earn the rest of his payday.