By Nathan Petrashek
Editor’s Note: This is the latest entry in Cream City Cables’ 2012 Brewers Preview Series. You can see the rest of the series here.
It was getting late in the 2010 fantasy baseball draft, and I was without a third baseman. The usual suspects-Rodriguez, Wright, Longoria, Zimmerman-were long gone, and I had even missed out on Youklis and Reynolds. But my savior awaited, or so I thought: Aramis Ramirez. Lest you think this post will be about my fantasy baseball team, let’s turn to Milwaukee’s new third baseman.
You see, up until 2010, Ramirez had been a model of consistency. He always hovered near the .300 mark, rarely struck out, and was pretty much a lock for 20+ home runs. Thirty would not have been uncharacteristic or unexpected. He was so cheap, I surmised, because he had been injured in 2009, but this is precisely the type of player I love bidding on: the bounce-back candidate with an excellent track record. By all accounts, Ramirez was primed to produce again; the market, in its infinite wisdom, just wasn’t up to speed.
Unfortunately for me, the market was right. In 2010 Ramirez had easily his worst offensive season since 2002, slashing only .241/.294/.452. His home run count was still there (25), but his strikeouts surged. After averaging 3.8 WAR the previous 7 seasons, Ramirez was worth .4 wins above replacement in 2010. Fortunately, by the end of the season my rosters featured home run king Jose Bautista and Brewers 3B Casey McGehee, who was putting up impressive numbers after a spectacular 2009 campaign.
As McGehee flourished and Ramirez slumped in 2010, it’s just a bit ironic that their roles would be completely reversed in 2011. McGehee had the worst season of his career and was eventually benched for prospect Taylor Green and, in the postseason, veteran Jerry Hairston, Jr. The guy just couldn’t buy a hit. Defensively, McGehee was actually pretty decent in 2011, though his frequent fielding and throwing errors and his weak bat erased any value he produced with his glove. By the end of June, McGehee was slashing only .224/.276/.310.
General Manager Doug Melvin had a choice to make after the season. Do you treat McGehee’s failed 2011 campaign as an aberration and his productive 2009 and 2010 seasons as predictive? Or did you always suspect McGehee was playing a bit over his head and see this as your last opportunity to squeeze some value from him? Personally, I can understand the logic in either approach. Melvin elected the latter, signing Ramirez, currently age 33, to a 3-year, $36MM contract. The contract was heavily backloaded (Ramirez will make only $6MM in 2012), and includes a $14MM mutual option for 2015. After the signing, the writing was pretty much on the wall for McGehee, who was shipped to Pittsburgh in exchange for hard-throwing but erratic reliever Jose Veras.
Defensively, Ramirez isn’t going to win any gold gloves. And that’s putting it pretty charitably. He has a career .948 fielding percentage, but has cut down dramatically on the errors of his youth (only 14 in 145 games in 2011). Ramirez’s range is not good, to put it mildly, though he probably still represents an upgrade over McGehee despite Ramirez’s defensively lacking 2011. Fangraphs puts Ramirez at a -17 defensive runs saved (DRS) last season, a fancy way of saying that he saved 17 fewer runs than the average 3B last year. But, you object, these things are best analyzed over a larger time frame! Well, fine; Ramirez has a career -43 DRS. If ultimate zone rating is your thing instead, Rammy clocks in at -30. It’s not pretty.
Thankfully, Ramirez brings more to the plate with his bat. You can consider his 2010 officially a fluke, prompted mostly by bad luck (.245 BABIP vs lifetime .289) and a ridiculous 58.6% fly ball rate that allowed him to maintain his home run numbers while lagging in batting average. Still, there are warning signs. Ramirez swung at a career-high 37% of pitches outside the zone in 2011, and at 33 years old you have to wonder when the inevitable decline will begin to set in. On the other hand, Ramirez still has excellent bat speed and pitch recognition. He’ll swing at pitches in the zone about 10% more than average, while still maintaining above-average contact rates. He’ll usually find a way to get on base and rarely strikes out. That’s worth something in a lineup featuring Rickie Weeks, Alex Gonzalez, and Corey Hart. And if his fly ball rate bumps back up to his career norm (45%), plenty of his hits should be leaving Miller Park.
2012 Projection: 142 G, 568 PA, 522 AB, 149 H, 75 R, 35 2B, 1 3B, 27 HR, 104 RBI, 46 BB, 68 K, 1 SB, .285/.343/.511