Friday, March 21, 2008

Time capsule

I was trolling the Google news wires today, and I stumbled across this gem of an article about ex-Pirate Alex Ramirez. It's understandable if you have trouble mentally distinguishing him from Alex Hernandez and other part-timers of similar vintage, but he's actually kind of an interesting case.

Step back with me, for a moment, to the year 2000. It's July. The Republican Party is getting ready to nominate George W. Bush as their candidate for President, the Democrats will follow with Al Gore less than a month later, and the Pirates are playing .430 ball, 100 games into their final season at Three Rivers Stadium. Cam Bonifay is the GM, and J.R. House is edging past Chad Hermansen as the franchise's top prospect. I'm getting ready for my senior year of college, which will start in about a month. I'm not sure what you're doing; I wasn't there. Fill it in for yourself. Are you with me? Good.

On July 28, Bonifay traded starting left fielder Wil Cordero to the Indians, receiving Ramirez and shortstop prospect Enrique Wilson back in return. Cordero was a pretty loathsome character, notorious for a regular series of incidents involving domestic violence against two wives (and various other women). Bonifay had signed him to an inexplicable three-year deal for $9M before the 2000 season, and Cordero had even more inexplicably played up to the contract, posting a .282/.336/.506 line with the Pirates. Cleveland GM John Hart was involved in a desperate push for the playoffs, and Cordero's acquisition was just one part of a lamentable shopping spree that'd also see him deal away emerging star Richie Sexson for three veteran arms (Bob Wickman, Steve Woodard, and Jason Bere).

On the whole, it looked like a good deal for the Pirates. They "sold high" on an overpaid, troublesome veteran, and got back two interesting young players in return. Ramirez was 25, a two-time minor league All-Star who had played well as a reserve for the Indians over the past two seasons. He didn't walk much, but hit for a good average and showed significant power potential. Wilson was even better: a 24-year-old shortstop who had made four minor league All-Star teams, and was generally regarded as one of the best middle infield prospects in baseball. Baseball Prospectus, itself only three years old at the time, was impressed by the deal. Christina Kahrl (still identifying as "Chris" back then), analyzed it thus:
Cam Bonifay is sort of the Anti-Herk in that while he screws up so many things in his pursuit of mediocrity, every few months or so he shakes down John Hart for something he desperately needs. Heck, maybe he's got a running bet with Jim Bowden on who can get the most talent from Hart while giving up the most thoroughly average guys in return.

While Bonifay was being touted for his genius for bringing in Pat Meares because somehow the Twins were obviously cheap beyond words to not overpay for one of the game's worst all-around shorstops, it wasn't long (roughly ten minutes or so) before the Pirates needed another shortstop. Now, almost two years later, they've got a potential All-Star in Enrique Wilson. He's got an outstanding throwing arm, which he'll finally get to show off on a regular basis, and he's a better hitter than most shortstops, especially in the league where the Big Three ain't.

In a world where you can always excuse multi-year deals for mediocre corner outfielders because you can claim that you might be able to peddle them for talent, Bonifay actually pulled it off. He even capped it by rewarding a better hitter than Wil Cordero, John VanderWal, with a multi-year deal. If ever the Bucs finally find a center fielder, they're set in the corners. Alex Ramirez will end up making a great platoon partner for VanderWal, assuming the Pirates can finally sort through their half-dozen good fourth outfielders and make some decisions on who to keep around.

Kahrl's take made sense. Offensively, longtime reserve Vander Wal had been a revelation in right field, hitting .314/.424/.599 against RHP, and Ramirez would've seemed to fit well as his platoon partner. Wilson, along with Jack Wilson and AAA's Abraham Nunez, seemed to give the team a wealth of middle infield options. Kendall and Giles were at the top of their respective games, Aramis Ramirez and Warren Morris were getting established in the infield, and the oldest man in the rotation was 28. If you squinted and fudged a little, it wasn't too hard to be optimistic.

Unfortunately, reality got in the way. Ramirez totally tanked during his audition with the Pirates, batting .209 and making 3 errors in the outfield. He was unceremoniously sold to Japan's Yakult Swallows that offseason, disappearing from MLB without a ripple. Wilson looked better in his audition, but played horribly in 2001, and was ultimately revealed to be two years older than his listed age, casting his past success in a less flattering light. Bonifay learned the wrong lesson from the Cordero signing, picking up another mediocre veteran outfielder with behavioral issues on yet another above-market deal, setting the wheels in motion for Operation Shutdown. In so doing, he alienated Vander Wal, who after much complaining was sent to the Giants later the next year as part of the disastrous Jason Schmidt trade. Bonifay himself preceded Vander Wal out of town by a few weeks, paying the price for a catastrophic failure in PNC Park's inaugural season, as the team notched triple-digit losses for the first time since 1985. Even the Indians weren't immune. They missed the playoffs by one game, Sexson emerged as a star in Milwaukee, and after another season of fighting against the tide, Hart took a job with the Texas Rangers, jumping before Cleveland had a chance to push him.

In all the noise and confusion of things breaking, collapsing, and just generally falling apart here in Pittsburgh, I lost track of Alex Ramirez, but it turns out that he's right where I left him. He's still playing left field for the Yakult Swallows, getting ready to enter his eighth season with the team (among active Western gaijin, only Tuffy Rhodes has had a longer term in Japan, and even he's changed teams three times). He still doesn't walk much (season high of 34, season low of 19), still hits for a pretty good average (career .301 in NPB), and still shows pretty good power (averaging a little over 30 homers a season). Best of all, he's happy being a fan favorite in Japan, and wants to spend the rest of his career there.

I've seen comments on some other sites that Pirate blogs in general are too negative, and there's some truth to both sides of that argument. There's no denying that we've had an awful lot to be negative about over the past few years, and even with good management (not a given), that's probably not going to change for at least a few more years. Still, if you want a reason for optimism, I think Ramirez is as good a reason as any. Even though he was damaged by his association with that cursed team, he still managed to carve out a little space for himself, where he could enjoy playing baseball. It's pretty much a given that the Pirates are going to suck this year, and probably also next year and the one after that as well. That's just the way that it is, and lying to yourself won't change it. Still, there are going to be things to enjoy along the way: surprising individual achievements, memorable games, a beer in the the sun with your dad on a Saturday afternoon. Enjoy the good parts, and don't let the things you can't control weigh you down. There's always another game tomorrow.

UPDATE, 11:00, 3/23/08: As patthatt noted in the comments, Ramirez just changed teams this offseason, signing a big deal to become the cleanup hitter for the Yomiuri Giants (basically the Yankees of Japan). Here's hoping that the offseason's changes work out well - for both him and us.]


hyzduhq said...

Great post Vlad! I remember that trade very well, as I saw both Wilson and Ramirez play shortly after that trade. I remember thinking that Ramirez would be great for us in the outfield, and Wilson was going to be a rock up the middle.

If only Ramirez had done something, we may never have had to go through the Operation Shutdown fiasco.

Also interesting to hear he is still playing in Japan. I knew he was over there, but I thought he had hung them up a year or so ago.

WilliamJPellas said...

Even given that Japanese baseball on the whole is probably "four-A", it's still almost certainly the best and most competitive baseball being played outside the US major leagues. If Ramirez can hit over .300 in Japanese ball for several years running, my conclusion is that this team gave up on him much too quickly. Granted, he almost certainly would never have been a star here, but it sure looks like he had enough ability to help more than a little.

John Vander Wal was another guy this team inexplicably screwed six ways to Sunday. All he did was produce whenever he got the chance to get on the field with any consistency, so what do they do? Bench and then trade him, of course. Un. Bee. Leev. Able. And to think I was actually thinking almost neutral thoughts about Bonifay when I would compare him with Dave Littlefield. Ugggghhh.

Anonymous said...

This is patthatt: You guys are missing the part about Ramirez being a terrible defensive player. He is limited to left and, man, do I mean limited. And I have watched him repeatedly attempt to play the OF here in Japan these many years. I don`t have time now, so I`ll post more later.

WilliamJPellas said...

I look forward to an eyewitness perspective on Ramirez' misadventures in left field in Japan, but his offensive statistics still look very good from where I'm sitting---even allowing for the fact that he is playing in the Japanese leagues and not in MLB. Again, I'm not saying he would've been a star. I'm saying he obviously has some ability and that this team probably gave up on him much too early. In other words, it looks to me like he was yet another talent evaluation screwup, and that there have been a multitude of them over the past 15 years.

Anonymous said...

Vlad: Alex Ramirez moved from the Yakult Swallows to the Yomiuri Giants this offseason.

Vlad is right in pointing out that Ramirez "tanked" in his 2000 audition with the Pirates. I think the Pirates saw quickly that he was a defensive liability and they didn`t see him as a regular/semi-regular player in their future, so they sold his contract when Yakult came calling.

I recollect Ramirez starting slowly in 2001, but he gradually developed more plate discipline and became a very productive hitter.

One thing to remember about Ramirez`s offense and defense: His home stadium from 2001-2007 was only about 291 feet down the LF line.(The dimensions have been changed a little for 2008)

This helped him to put up much better power numbers and enabled him to play "safe" defense. He didn`t have to go back on balls so much, and he always seemed to find a way to "surround" a lot of balls in front of him.

His huge contract with the Giants will put him in a situation where he will have to produce in the spotlight. We`ll see how he does.

When I see Ramirez, I just think he`s the kind of guy, like his former Yakult teammate Roberto Petagine, who can do very well, even star in Japan, but would just be a mediocre player in MLB.

He`s played his cards right here, looks happy, playing the part of the smiling "gaijin" to the utmost, but don`t read to much into his career in Japan, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Correction: I should have typed about 298 feet down the LF line.
Regardless, you guys should get a pretty good picture of the bandbox he played in for 7 years, and how it helped him boost his power numbers.

If not, think of Akinori Iwamura`s dropoff in power production from Yakult to MLB. It can`t be solely attributed to a difference in overall level of the respective games, or to a change in the batting order for him.

hyzduhq: BTW-I was really disappointed that the Hawks didn`t give Adam Hyzdu a chance to play more often last season. I never quite understood the rationale behind their decision-making with most of their foreign players in 2007, for that matter.

Good work with the site, Vlad.

Vlad said...

D'oh! I didn't know that Ramirez had changed teams. Thanks for pointing it out.

You're right about the pressure on him, now that he's with the Giants. They're basically the Yankees of Japan, and they don't tolerate failure well, especially when it comes to gaijin. Of course, there are perks, too: he'll probably see some pretty good pitches, hitting behind Ogasawara.

The park thing is always worth keeping in mind; as Pat notes, you need to discount power numbers pretty severely for most Japanese hitters. Not all of Ramirez's power is an illusion, though: He did hit 34 HR as a 23-year-old at AAA Buffalo (Dunn Tire Park is 325 down both lines and 410 to straightaway center), and he did have a .178 ISO in his time in MLB. "Mediocre" in MLB sounds about right, something like a useful reserve on a good team, or a platoon starter on a bad one.

I wasn't trying to beat up the team for letting him go; I just thought it was neat that a guy who had totally fallen off of my personal grid had done so well for himself.

Anonymous said...

Ramirez Screws Up In The Field, Hits the Game-Winning HR

Ryan Vogelsong Pitches Respectably, Loses A Chance At A Win Because Of Relief Pitching

Vlad: I just finished watching the Yomiuri Giants beat the Hanshin Tigers, 6-5. Vogelsong was the starter for Hanshin and pitched reasonably well into the 6th inning, leaving with a 5-2 lead. The relievers blew a chance for him to get his first win of the year. Vogelsong is one of the those pitchers who just couldn`t get it done in MLB, but has enough stuff to have some success in Japan.

Ramirez had an interesting game, and not just because of the HR. He totally screwed up a play in the OF, throwing to 2nd on a stand-up double to the LF wall, instead of hitting his cutoff man and preventing the runner who went from 1st to 3rd from scoring. It was so amateurish. It won`t show up in the boxscore as an error, but it certainly was a serious error in judgment on the field that cost his team a run. But in the end, Ramirez is the hero! He really has led a charmed baseball life in Japan.