If Indians shortstop Jose Ramirez looks right, then left, and then finally takes the two and a half hour drive down to Columbus, where the Tribe’s Triple-A affiliate plays, he will see, plain as a cliche double-header Sunday, that though he may rent a spot on Cleveland’s diamond, he will erect no home there.
With a pair of hits and a run scored in last night’s 7-1 victory over Cincinatti, the 21 year old rookie added to what has been his best professional season to date. He came into the year as the Tribe’s 6th overall prospect according to ESPN.com’s Keith Law – 9th by Baseball America’s standards – and hit well as one of the youngest players in the International League. Through his first 24 games, he owned a .319/.365/.484 slash line with four home runs and consequently earned a major league promotion on May 3rd.
He struggled and was demoted on the 18th, but he continued to hit in Triple-A, and when veteran shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera – since traded – went down with a back injury on July 23rd, the Indians called Ramirez up to fill in. He’s held his own ever since, with a .273 average in 33 at bats. Most out of contention teams would relish the opportunity to see a promising young shortstop in action on the big league stage.
But most out of contention teams do not have a player like Francisco Lindor.
Lindor, 20, replaced Ramirez in Columbus the day Ramirez replaced Cabrera in the majors. Ramirez is currently respectably ranked by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, as the sixth best prospect on the Indians; Lindor is ranked as the fourth best prospect in the entire game.
“An elite defensive shortsop,” Mayo wrote of him, “, and many scouts consider him to be the best defender in the Minor Leagues.”
“Does everything well except hit home runs,” John Sickels of Minor League Ball wrote in his article on the Indians’ top 20 prospects “and I think he could eventually develop more power than people currently expect,”
In last month’s ranking of the game’s top 50 prospects, Law summed up the general scouting outlook on Lindor: “a frequent All-Star and longtime starter at short.”
Speculation of an impending major league promotion for Lindor began the moment Cabrera was injured, and escalated when the Indians traded their long-time shortstop. Few fans, if any, paid heed to the other athletic youngster auditioning on the infield.
Lindor’s looming presence, though, should not overshadow Ramirez’s talents. At 5’9, 165 pounds, he’s Pedroia-small, but that suits his playing style. The Dominican native has incredible footspeed – a 65 runner on the 20-80 scale by Mayo’s estimate – and he used it to swipe 38 bags last season, tops in the Eastern League. A pesky hitter at the top of the order, Ramirez is loathe to strikeout – just 114 whiffs in 1344 minor league plate appearances (8% K rate) – and prone to walks and line drives. He posted a 9% walk rate, a .302 average and .360 on base percentage for Columbus before his most recent promotion. Just don’t expect much power.
The Indians have shifted him over to second for parts of the last two seasons, even put him at third on nine occasions, but that is more of a referendum on Lindor’s talent than an indictment of Ramirez’s. His speed gives him the range to play a solid shortstop and he has the hands, arm, and versatility to play anywhere on the infield.
Which brings us back to the original problem: there are no spots on the Cleveland infield.
Lindor will take the reigns at short any week now. And for all of second baseman Jason Kipnis‘s struggles this year, he finished 11th in the American League MVP voting last season and amassed the sixth highest fWAR all major league second baseman from 2012 to 2013. Besides, he signed 52 million dollar contract in April that will keep him in Cleveland through at least 2019.
At third, former top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall has finally come in to his own, with a .306/.369/.481 line and the second highest OPS among major league third baseman this season. His glove may be suspect at the moment, but he was never considered a defensive liability as a prospect and should improve with more reps.
There are arrangements that incorporate Ramirez in the infield, but none of them are ideal. The club could actually put Chisenhall at first and Santana at DH, but when healthy, Nick Swisher really has to play there. He is owed fifteen million dollars each of the next two seasons and his defense at first is a significant liability – according to Fangraphs’ ultimate zone rating, Swisher’s fielding at first has cost his team more runs per game than any other major league first baseman this season (min. 200 innings).
Perhaps a move to the outfield could keep Ramirez in the lineup?
The Indians have touched on this idea, but only lightly, starting him in the outfield for Columbus. His speed would certainly allow him to cover ground in baseball’s most spacious ballparks.
If that were the plan, though, Ramirez would be in right or left field now. At 33, starting left-fielder Chris Dickerson has still never earned over 300 plate appearances in a major league season and David Murphy‘s defense in right offsets most of his offensive output. If the Indians viewed Ramirez as an outfielder, he would be starting in right field tonight against the Reds.
No, the Indians are keeping him at short, even as Lindor pounds on the door from Triple-A
That leaves two options for Ramirez’s future: The Indians either look to trade Ramirez in the offseason, using these next couple months as a showcase for rival executives, or they turn their sixth best prospect, a 21 year old, into a utility infielder.
Either way, Jose Ramirez is not going to reach his full potential in a Cleveland Indians uniform.