Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Sunday, January 18, 2004
Assuming the Position - Part 8 - Third Base
Um....so.....anybody, uh.........see.....my dog ate, uh.........and there was this FLASH, see, um..........ah..........and then.........ELVIS (yeah, yeah, that's it!), Elvis said I should wait AT LEAST a month after talking about the rest of the infield to do a piece about third base. Really. Truly.
I also hadn't a clue what to write, but that hasn't stopped me before, so away I go.
The best deal the Cubs made for 2004 really got done in 2003. Confronted simultaneously with Corey Patterson's season ending knee injury and the gaping maw of penultimate uselessness at the hot corner, Jim Hendry called Dave Littlefield of the Pirates and found him more than willing to be robbed blind. One former infield prospect and a bag of magic beans later, the Cubs had acquired Kenny Lofton to fill the Patterson void and Aramis Ramirez to kick the maw in its ineffectual teeth. Lofton has since been allowed to go his merry way, but Ramirez remains, and that is whence my joy derives.
Thanks to the acquisition of Ramirez, last year was the first season since 1997 that a third baseman 25 years old or younger started the majority of games for the Cubs (Kevin Orie was 24). Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1982 when a 22 year-old named Sandberg played his first full season in the Majors, spending 133 games at La Esquina Caliente, the last he would play there in his remaining 14 years of service.
My point, if I have yet to let on strongly enough, is that the acquisition of a young third sacker with significant upside is not an event without consequence in the history of the franchise, and while I would be loathe to paint Ramirez with the "Heir to the Throne of Santo" brush, he does have a chance to help us cease to view Ronny's career through the eyes of the starving. When the last good thing you ate was a big, juicy Porterhouse, that's the thing you keep pining for, and while a well made burger may pale in comparison, after so many years without meat, does the difference really matter much?
As far as metaphorical burgers go, Ramirez isn't perfect, but he has qualities to recommend him. Mostly, he hits the ball real hard. Here's a list of Third Basemen and their Isolated Power vs. the league from 2001-2003.
These numbers include his injury riddled 2002 season when he put up an abysmal .234/.279/.387 line, as well as a similarly poor April last year which saw him hitting at a .239/.317/.370 clip. He seems to have overcome those issues, and is playing at a level much closer to his breakout 2001 season, when he was a mere 23 years old.
And that's where most of my hope rests. He'll be 26 this year, likely a couple of years from his peak, had a great season when he was 23, and the intervening periods of underperformance can be explained in great part by injuries and the time needed to regain his stroke after fully healing (if you think a lingering ankle injury won't make you alter your swing mechanics to compensate, think again). His walk rates have never been high (Career, 15.8 AB/BB, 2003 14.5 AB/BB, 2003 Cubs 13.6 AB/BB), but they are improving over what he posted in 2001 (15.1 AB/BB), and without a commensurate increase in his strikeout rates (his K rate actually decreased 35.8% from his time in Pittsburg in 2003 to his time with the Cubs. Small sample size, I know, but encouraging nonetheless). There's a lot of potential there, and if all goes well, seeing it come to fruition could be one of the more satisfying aspects of the 2004 season.
Yet, despite the exciting offensive possibilities, there are issues to be raised with his defense, mostly with a high quantity of errant throws. The problem is not his arm. I doubt they've made the wall that can sustain the impact of a ball fired from his cannon, but the open question is whether that wall could be built large enough to ensure consistent contact. Frankly, helmets and body armor should be issued to anyone sitting from the screen to the bullpen on the first base side of Wrigley Field. Lack of action on this point may invite lawsuits from the maimed and traumatized. Sure, the Tribune Company could afford the payout, but they've worked too hard setting up their own scalping gig to let some newly blind mother of three prevent them from pocketing the dough.
But I digress.
The problem, instead, is his feet. Ramirez does a consistently poor job of setting his feet under himself, thus creating an unstable base leading to erratic throws. Dusty Baker has stated that they understand the problem and are going to work with him to correct it. I'll believe it when I see it. Ramirez is still young, so I won't completely write off the possibility of improvement, but something tells me this isn't a revelatory understanding of the ills that afflict him. After all, if I can see the problem, I have to believe that every scout and coach on the planet can as well, and if that's that case, then the Cubs better have some revolutionary method of teaching footwork, or Aramis will continue to be the largest contributor of defensively derived souvenirs in the league.
But is that really so bad? Actually, no. Despite the large number of errors, according to Clay Davenport's player cards at Baseball Prospectus, Ramirez has often been only slightly below average defensively. Over the last three seasons, his defense has been worth about 5 runs per 162 games below an average third baseman's. Doesn't look great, but when you figure that over that same period he's averaging 28.9 errors per 162 games, the implications are obvious. Make the errors manageable, and you've got a solid to good defensive third baseman on your hands. Causing it to occur is something else entirely, but stranger things have happened (see Sosa, Sammy re: Plate Discipline).
I may be overly enthusiastic about Ramirez, after all, most of what's exciting about him is contained in the physical tools he brings. I'm not normally one to be seduced by this level of unrealized potential, but hey, he's a Cub third baseman and it's January. A guy can dream, can't he?