Typically, September promotions in baseball don’t warrant a significant amount of attention.
For most teams, it’s a matter of adding along the miscellaneous 40-man players that they’ve had ready to go all season. For the few remaining contending squads, the focus is on players who can impact games in any small way.
What this means is, typically, 20-year-old 5-foot-9 second basemen with no Triple-A experience and not currently on the 40-man roster aren’t usually the sort of call-ups we see for any team, contending or not.
But alas, it’s Sept. 2 and Jose Ramirez already has made an impact in an MLB game. His antics as a pinch runner helped the Tribe rally on Sunday, leading up to Mike Aviles’ game-winning grand slam.
Even more peculiar about the Ramirez case is the fact he wasn’t on any prospect radars leading up to the 2012 season. Now, with another great minor-league season, he’s the first under-21 position player for the Tribe since Jim Thome in 1991 and the youngest since Jay Bell in 1986.
When the Ramirez news broke on Friday night, it was met with some confusion by Tribe fans. Why would the team decide to begin his arbitration clock now? Why would they have him skip Triple-A entirely, shortly after skipping High-A? It didn’t seem in the typical style of the usually conservative Indians development approach.
Thus, there are a few theories on why the decision was made. I’ll get into the long-term effects in a moment. Most directly, however, it showed the Cleveland front office was more confident in 20-year-old Ramirez to benefit the team this September than 24-year-old Juan Diaz, who was designed for assignment.
Folks might recall Diaz from last season, as he played in five games for the Indians in late May. Never really a significant prospect, he was acquired from the Seattle Mariners (of course) along with Ezequiel Carrera for Russell Branyan back in 2010.
He’s a minor league veteran now, with an impressive 788 games accumulated at the Single-A level or above. But his numbers for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers this season showed relatively little hope for the future: .242/.317/.348 in 122 games, along with 129 strikeouts and 16 errors at shortstop.
In the end, the Indians clearly felt that this one-on-one matchup favored Ramirez in terms of immediate value. Ramirez was batting .272/.325/.349 with an Eastern League-leading 38 steals in 113 games for the Double-A Akron Aeros. At the least, he was seen as a potentially dangerous pinch runner, as we saw Sunday afternoon in Detroit.
But promoting a 20-year-old speedy prospect requires a lot more thought and consideration that just a small, probably insignificant boost in September. So here are a few added theories for why the decision was made.
1. Stop-gap player for 2014 sans Asdrubal Cabrera.
This is the one theory that was expressed the most on Twitter with the news of Ramirez’s promotion. Obviously, the 27-year-old shortstop Cabrera has struggled mightily this season, to the tune of a .241/.296/.387 line in 110 games for a career-worst 0.5 WAR. His defense continues to be near the bottom of the league by most statistical evaluations.
But, just like closer Chris Perez’s perilous future, fans wonder whether it is still valuable for the Indians to retain Cabrera’s services at his guaranteed $10 million for the 2014 season. Prospects, such as Ramirez, remain on the cusp of the majors, and that’s a lot of money for a very average shortstop.
Alongside Aviles, the switch-hitting Ramirez could be a part of a very cost-effective short-term middle infield platoon in this situation. Ramirez played 50 games at shortstop in 2013 after only briefly playing the position over the past two seasons.
2. Try-out for a future competition with Lonnie Chisenhall.
Digging a little deeper than just the future of Cabrera, however, one might note that Ramirez also played eight games at third base this season. All of those games occurred since mid-August, leaving conspiracy theorists to propose that the 24-year-old third baseman Chisenhall’s future might be in jeopardy.
Now in 189 career MLB games, the former first-round pick is batting just .243/.281/.399 for a bench player-esque 2.2 WAR. His numbers are down across the board in 2013, mostly because of his awful start to the season.
But could the Indians be souring on his future prospects? They perhaps balked at Matt Garza trade rumors when his name was included. The hopes after Chisenhall aren’t great, but adding Ramirez as a back-up option with Aviles, just like Mike Reynolds did this year, could be valuable again in 2014.
3. Jose Ramirez isn’t really a top-tier prospect.
Despite both of those theories above, this is the one that is the most damning and yet, the most likely: top-10 organizational prospect Jose Ramirez still isn’t a top-tier prospect. Most generously, his MLB comparisons are Chone Figgins and Jose Altuve, two fellow short infielders with good on-base numbers. But in the end, these types of players just typically aren’t the most highly rated prospects.
It’s no secret that 19-year-old Francisco Lindor has top billing on Cleveland’s long-term radar. After his promotion to Double-A Akron, he played 21 impressive games before being shut down for the season. At best, he could reach the bigs sometime in mid-June when he can delay his Super 2 status.
Then, there’s also 21-year-old Ronny Rodriguez, who batted .266/.292/.376 in 115 games for the Aeros this season. He had 19 home runs for High-A Carolina last season and was ranked as a higher prospect entering 2013 than Ramirez. That could remain the same for 2014 as well because of his more projectable 6-foot frame and skill set.
If both Lindor and Rodriguez then are more valuable prospects, then Ramirez stands out as the most expendable and versatile. There’s no harm in the Indians perhaps auditioning him for a trade or utilizing him as utility man already, since he’s likely blocked by a number of current and future starters for the Tribe.
While it’s easy to get excited about the youngest position player in 20 years making a difference this fall for the Indians, this final point shows how it’s really just an appetizer for next year’s main course of Lindor. The Indians are being more aggressive of late with their prospects and this is just another example, although it’s maybe not as outrageous a move as some people think.