By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)
Aramis Ramirez may be an All-Star in 2014, and it’s pretty easy to see why. The slugging righty is currently hitting .292/.340/.492 with 10 home runs, has the second-highest wRC+ (a measure of a player’s total offensive value above league average) among NL third-basemen at 129, and he’s shown quite a capable glove at the hot corner. There are definitely other worthy candidates (Todd Frazier and Matt Carpenter, for example) but there’s no doubt Ramirez is having a great year.
It seems a prudent move for the Brewers to pick up their portion of Ramirez’s 2015 mutual option. Ramirez is being paid $16M this year, but his 2015 option is for $14M, and the Brewers are already on the hook for a $4M buyout if they decline. That means the option’s net cost is $10M. If we assume the cost of a win in 2015 remains around $6M, Ramirez would only have to contribute about 1.6 WAR to be worth the money. Ramirez accumulated 5.7 fWAR during a healthy 2012 season, 1.4 during an injury-plagued 2013 campaign, and currently has 1.6 in 2014, despite missing most of May.
The Brewers don’t have a lot of other third base candidates. Internally, the closest the team has to a major-league 3B is Taylor Green, who was drafted in 2005 and is already 27. Green has had an up-and-down career in the minors, but lost all of last season to a hip injury that required surgery. Green currently sports an OBP below .300 at AAA Nashville, and hasn’t hit will in limited time with the big-league club. He’ll also be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2015.
The Brewers best 3B prospect is probably Nick Delmonico, who was acquired from the Orioles in 2013. Delmonico, who currently plays for A Brevard County, will need more development in the advanced minors before he’s ready for the prime time, though.
Externally, the Brewers could do a few things, but none as good-or realistic-as bringing back Ramirez. They could attempt to resign Mark Reynolds in 2015 and play him exclusively at third; this has the advantage of being relatively cheap. Despite Reynolds very good year with the glove, I’m not sure it’s the wisest choice giving Reynolds’ reputation for defensive lapses. Pablo Sandoval-the only full-time 3B free agent under the age of 30-is reportedly looking for a deal upwards of $100M and comes with health and performance concerns. If the 31-year-old Hanley Ramirez doesn’t work out an extension with the Dodgers, he too would look for a big-money deal in likely his last long-term contract. There’s Chase Headley, also 31, who may in the midst of a severe decline, raising questions about his fielding and plate discipline. Beyond those four, it’s really just a bunch of guys, the most appetizing of which may be former Brewer Casey McGehee, currently hitting .309/.375/.392 with the Florida Marlins.
Of course, the option isn’t completely in the Brewers hands. Ramirez, who turns 36 tomorrow, may think he can get a better deal on the free agent market and decline his half of the mutual option (though that wouldn’t necessarily preclude the Brewers from bringing him back). Ramirez has also had lots of nagging injuries over the last few seasons. In 2013, he missed time during both spring training and the regular season with knee issues, and a hamstring strain this year cost Ramirez almost all of May. He left the game last Saturday with back tightness. The injuries cut both in favor and against the Brewers: they might scare off a few teams from a long-term deal and lower Ramirez’s market value, encouraging him to exercise his half of the option (resulting in the $4M buyout if the Brewers elect not to do the same).
On the whole, it seems that barring some catastrophic injury, the Brewers best plan for competing in 2015 might be to pick up Ramirez’s option and hope he reciprocates. His big bat won’t be matched by any internal candidates, and the external candidates who could perhaps contribute equally will cost much, much more. Even if Ramirez is true to his history and suffers some minor injury during the 2015 season, his expected contributions during healthy periods make it a worthwhile gamble.