Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
Assuming The Position 2006: Third Base
by Derek Smart
At the end of 2004, Aramis Ramirez had emerged as a star, finally fulfilling the promise shown so early in his career and becoming a dominating force in the middle of the Cubs' lineup. As it turned out, his timing couldn't have been better, because while he may have been one year away from entering free agency, that's exactly the time Jim Hendry likes to lock up his young stars.
Hendry did just that, signing Ramirez to a four year...er...two year...um......multi-year contract that guaranteed he would be a Cub through 2006, and gave Ramirez the option of staying on through 2008, if he saw fit. It was big money for Aramis, guaranteeing that in those first two years he would nearly double what he had made during his career to that point, with salaries of approximately $9M in 2005 and $10.5M in 2006.
However, despite his fantastic 2004, the Cubs were taking a couple of risks. One was related to the deal's structure, and while I still have lingering issues with it, I basically came to peace with it then, and I remain peaceable now.
The other was the more obvious question of whether a man who, despite showing flashes of tremendous talent during his career, had never put together consecutive seasons of excellence, was worth the cash. Ramirez answered the question by putting together what was easily his second best season thus far. To get the full picture, let's look at his career to date as a full-time player.
For the first time since he became a Cub we can see a little regression on the plate discipline side. Nothing completely out of bounds - his strikeout and walk rates are still far better than they ever were during his time as a Pirate - but there's no denying he slipped a bit.
That's the bad news. The good news is, he's managed to pretty clearly establish a superior level of power, while at the same time putting up his second straight season with a .300 batting average. Hitting for power is a skill, as is hitting for average, and while they are certainly useful as separate entities - extreme examples of those practicing but one of those skills being men like Dave Kingman on the boom-boom side, and Willie Keeler over yonder with the slap-happy - put them together and you've got yourself a superior offensive player, indeed.
This is precisely what Ramirez has done during his time as a Cub, and in the process he's made himself one of the better offensive players in either league, particularly if one is taking position into account. Let's take a peek at where he ranked among Major League third basemen, starting with his breakout year in 2004.
These are the top 10 third basemen in the Majors according to VORP, and as you can see, Ramirez comes in a solid number five, also managing to be third in the NL. Look a little more closely at the list, and you can see that he's getting it done just like I said, with average and power. He's third in average, third in slugging, yet fifth in EQA due in large part to an OBP that, for a guy hitting .318, is relatively low.
His lack of speed also hurts him in the EQA ranking, because while it looks like he's clearly outproducing Alex Rodriguez when looking at their hitting line, when park adjustments and A-Rod's 28 for 32 in steals get factored in, he drops a spot lower than you might otherwise think. Still, there's absolutely no shame in being fifth among this group.
Now let's see how the list shapes up for 2005.
Note that only four men make a repeat appearance on this list, and of those, only one made a move up the ranks. I mention this to make a point about the difficulty in performing consistently from season to season. I doubt any of us would fail to rank Scott Rolen among the best third basemen around, yet here he is, missing from this past season's list.
Of course, it's not because his game left him, but rather because his body spent the year consistently failing him. The same can be said in reverse for Troy Glaus, who went missing from the list in 2004 because of injuries of his own, only to make it back with the Diamondbacks in 2005. Others simply stopped playing well, chief among them, Mike Lowell, who can be seen at this very moment through high-powered telescopes floating past Mars, having completely fallen off the planet in 2005.
I don't mean to imply that Ramirez' being among the best of the breed for two consecutive years means he's a lock to follow up with a similarly productive stint in 2006. Rather, I mean to say that, thus far, the risk inherent in giving any one ballplayer a huge amount of money has been well worth it in his case.
It's hard to stay on the field as a Major Leaguer and remain productive, even if you're among the finest at your position, and so far, despite injury issues of his own, he's managed to get it done and stay among those higher level players. Consistency is worth some investment, especially when you're one of the game's brighter lights.
So while his offensive contributions appear to have been worth the money, the chink in the Musketeer's armor is, of course, his defense. He seemed to take a step forward in 2004, reducing his error total to 10, and posting what was easily the best fielding percentage of his career.
The problem was, if one looked at some of the fielding metrics out there, that he was actually a little worse, posting his lowest RATE2 (RATE adjusted for league difficulty and normalized over time) in 4 years with a sad looking 89 (where 100 is average).
I posited last year in this space that the reduction in defensive utility we saw, despite the increased efficiency exhibited with the balls he handled, had everything to do with the groin injury he suffered in July of that year. I still think that's a reasonable theorem, since the hot corner is all about quickness and explosive movement, and any problems a player might have in his core are almost certain to take a toll on that explosiveness (just ask Nomar).
A similar thing seems to have happened this season. Ramirez not only saw his RATE2 go down to a dismal 88, but his fielding percentage went back down to .947 - that familiar territory safely below league average. This time - and granted, with the relative dearth of granular defensive metrics at our disposal I'm relying a lot on observation to fill in the gaps - I think injuries not only hurt his range a bit, but also but the kibosh on the progress he'd made with his footwork.
Ramirez had worked very hard leading up to 2004 to get his feet working better, and his success in that area was observable both in the way he executed in the field - primarily when he was throwing - and in the reduction in his error rate we've already mentioned. This progress went out the window in 2005, and I think it had as much to do with the groin, back, and quadriceps issues that continued to plague him throughout the year than anything else.
He simply seemed unable to comfortably plant himself after fielding a ball, and without that steady base providing balance and solidity, his throwing accuracy went out the window and onto the street, where it was promptly run over by a passing semi-truck.
If I can impose again for a moment and journey once more into the land of data-free observational conclusions, I honestly don't recall a single moment all year when Ramirez looked as smooth and comfortable in the field as he did during the 2004 season, and to my mind, the fact that he seemed to never have his legs under him was the primary factor.
I believe that if the Cubs can get a full, healthy year out of Ramirez - not just one where he makes due while battling injuries that affect what little mobility he has - that we'll see, if not a good fielding third baseman, at least one who is close enough to average to allow Cub fans to breathe comfortably when a grounder is hit to the left side.
Which brings us to the general issue of Ramirez and his injury problems. While yet to be formally saddled with the "injury-prone" label, the problems he's had over the last two years have certainly cut into his value, affecting both his playing time and his level of play when able to take the field.
It's apparent that he has some chronic issues surrounding his leg and core muscles, and much to the organization's credit, they made it clear once Ramirez' season was essentially over at the end of August, that he would be engaging in a targeted offseason program designed to prevent such injuries in the future.
The mission for him and the organization this offseason has to be to get him in the kind of condition that will allow him to go the entire season without experiencing more pain than what the everyday grind of the season will ordinarily bring. Obviously, not all injuries can be prevented, but there are preventive measures one can take to help reduce the chances that a player will be hurt, particularly with the type of harm Ramirez has suffered of late.
To me, this is the key to getting the most out of Ramirez going forward. While he's certainly capable of being productive while working through the types of physical hurdles he's encountered the last two years, he has yet to have the opportunity to show us the full power of his considerable talent, and if the team can get him ready to go this winter, Cub opponents should be shaking in their cleats.