In yesterday’s installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I covered Colorado’s worthy gamble on a pitcher seemingly made to overcome Coors Field, should he be able to stay off the trainer’s table – Brett Anderson. As the snow surrounds me in Eugene, OR, it seems unjust that the alphabet demands I focus on the team enjoying more considerably more balmy conditions 852 miles to the south. Alas, it’s necessary; the Los Angeles Dodgers are PECOTA’s prohibitive favorites, projected to win 98 wins despite the standard conservatism built in to the forecasting. But it’s not their Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm I’m concentrating on – luckily for you. Instead, my subject is the much more entertaining Hanley Ramirez. Enjoy.
The value of a healthy Hanley Ramirez was never more apparent than in the 2013 NLCS, in which Los Angeles took on the St. Louis Cardinals. Against Atlanta in the NLDS, Ramirez had batted .500, posting an OPS of 1.618 in his amassing of 17 total bases in only 18 PAs. Hanley was en fuego, his performance as the hottest batter of the postseason indisputable entering Game 1 in St. Louis (David Ortiz‘s planet-devouring World Series effort obviously came later). Then in the first inning, with one on, one out, and a 1-2 count, Joe Kelly landed a 95mph in Ramirez’s ribs, breaking one. The scorching was over. Though he stayed in the game through all 13 innings, the Dodger’s no.3 hitter would miss Game 2, and be hobbled both at the plate and in the field for the remainder of the series; in 19 PAs, Ramirez would hit .133, have an OPS of .449, and accrue 2 TB. The Dodgers would score only 13 runs in the 6 game series, losing 4-2.
By virtue of some deep bedroom analytics then, we’ve deduced that a Hanley Ramirez with a full quotient of intact ribs is valuable, perhaps to such an extent to swing a LCS result. How valuable however, is the question the Dodgers now must seriously face. After locking up star pitcher Clayton Kershaw this past offseason, they must now open their checkbook to extend their most pivotal position; in the final year of the 6-year $70 million contract the then-Florida Marlins signed him to in 2009, Hanley is owed $16 million in 2014. And while it’s highly unlikely that the Dodgers let Ramirez reach free agency, the size of his next contract is far from a sure thing.
Since coming to Los Angeles as part of the 2012 Marlins fire sale, Ramirez hasn’t disappointed. Last year, Hanley posted a .345/.402/.638 slash line, with only AL MVP Miguel Cabrera topping his 191 wRC+, while also returning to barely average levels in the field (for the first time since 2008, Ramirez had a positive UZR: 0.2). In all, Ramirez was worth 5.1 WAR – the second highest value among shortstops in the majors behind Troy Tulowitzki – and finished 8th in MVP voting.
He did this all in just 86 games, totaling 336 PAs.
Therein lies the main obstacle in assessing Ramirez’s worth – he has an uneven history with injuries and performance. In 2013 he played only 4 games before June 4th, his season delayed by first a torn thumb ligament sustained at the WBC, then a hamstring strain mere days after his return. Previously there was the 2010 shoulder surgery, in addition to back pain that requires daily treatment. Then there was the mysterious decline in 2011-12, a span in which his batting average fell to .252, his on-base percentage to .326, and Ramirez averaged only 17 HRs and 62 RBIs, all the while playing well below-average defense. And while aside from those down two seasons – which can in part be attributed to the lingering effects of injury and a terrible situation with the Marlins – Ramirez has legitimately been one of the best hitters in the majors, does offering a multi-year deal to a player turning 31 this season make sense for the Dodgers?
Magic Johnson et al so far haven’t been averse to opening their checkbooks to secure talent, the Kershaw deal joining the acquisition of Zack Greinke last winter as prominent examples of the fiscal resources available to the Dodgers. Neither however, have they completely overwhelmed the market buying everything in sight; Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano and Masahiro Tanaka have all gone elsewhere, while management has expressed a desire to build from within via their financially-strengthened scouting and development. The starting price for Ramirez is presumably established, and it isn’t cheap; the final six years (age 30-35) of the aforementioned Tulowitzki’s contract is worth $118 million. One year older, Ramirez will probably ask for at least the same – perhaps more in the region of $125 million.
Undoubtedly a team would pay up should Ramirez reach free agency next winter. With a payroll well in excess of the repeater tax threshold anyway, the Dodgers would be wise to be that team. Regardless of his age and history, and with top SS prospect Corey Seager on the way (Han-Ram would potentially slide over to third and replace Juan Uribe when the time comes), Hanley gives the Los Angeles lineup an MVP-caliber hitter when healthy. The sort of hitter the club sorely missed against the Cardinals last October, capable of pushing the Dodgers to their first World Series appearance since 1988.