My old friend Don O'Fleer and I have spent this winter observing parallels between the events of this offseason and the events of offseasons past. This is the final of three posts (I and II) we've put together from those observations. As was true Wednesday, Don is driving on this one. -afh
III. Jose Ramirez : Brandon Phillips :: having an infielder : not having an infielder
It’s been said that poor baseball teams can’t afford luxuries. I can recall that some advocated for trading Kelly Shoppach much earlier than the Indians actually traded him, because two starting catchers on the 25-man was a "luxury," and it was expensive to play Shoppach 30-odd innings per week when his value to another team could be converted into a player who addressed a position of greater need for the Indians.
This working-class inclination, I suspect, is at the root of the argument that Jose Ramirez is trade bait. To wit: "Lindor is all but ready, Kipnis will rebound from his injuries, and the Indians, who after all have another well-regarded young shortstop on the 40-man in Erik ‘Who?’ Gonzalez, cannot afford to clutch Ramirez to their depth chart protectively in a thin off-season market for middle infielders."
It’s also credible to suspect that Ramirez’s 2014 second-half productivity was unsustainable and to thus feel that he should be traded "while his value is high" insofar as he’s no more than a utility infielder going forward. (Leaving aside the issue of whether the Indians may in fact need an inexpensive utility infielder, I’ll respectfully note that if you think Ramirez is only a utility infielder then it’s somewhat contradictory to argue for "trading him when his value is high," because it’s entirely possible every MLB GM agrees with you about Ramirez’s ceiling. As I theorized Wednesday, trades tend to be equitable, and we cannot assume that other organizations are led by imbeciles.)
It is also natural for Indians fans to assume that Ramirez is simply Not A Thing. Certainly followers of this organization have been burned by flash-in-the-pan middle infielders before. The prospecterrazi told us not to get our hopes up, that Ramirez was, at best, an undersized second-division second baseman with good speed.
And yet, there he was, emerging basically fully formed in 2014 as an MLB-level shortstop with enough stick to earn a starting role in a Terry Francona lineup. So let’s get cautiously optimistic and work from the assumption that the second-half-2014 Jose Ramirez is a reasonable facsimile of the player he will be for the next few seasons. Is it a Rangers-esque luxury to carry to two starting shortstops?
In answer to that, I’d ask you to consider Brandon Phillips. I’m not arguing that Ramirez is a comparable player to Phillips, nor that Phillips the actual person had any future with this organization. I’m just wondering, what if the Indians had managed to keep him? Because the Indians would go on to need another competent full-time infielder, up the middle or at third, until basically forever. As compared to the actual costs of keeping Phillips around, how much time, talent, and money have the Indians shoveled into that particular hole over the last decade?
Some commentators seem fairly certain that Cleveland's deep bench of infielders will provide the Indians’ stability at middle infield and third base going forward; I admire, but do not share, this certainty. Better prospects than Francisco Lindor have struggled to make the transition to the bigs, and we should be wary of banking on a rapid and complete return to form by Jason Kipnis. (And we’re not even broaching the topic of whether Lonnie Chisenhall stays at third.) The worst-case scenario in keeping Ramirez is that all three of Ramirez, Lindor, and Kipnis both have a few productive, injury-free seasons, and Ramirez gets stashed on the roster as a super-utility player until Gonzalez or someone else comes along.
I have a theory that Indians fans have been lulled into a false sense of security about the dependability of shortstops by the basically uninterrupted succession at that position of Asdrubal Cabrera from Jhonny Peralta – the Pax Peraltasdrubala. But, as many have noted, available infielders are scarce at the moment. If the Indians move Ramirez to capitalize on the shortage, but end up needing a starting infielder, what have they gained? The return Ramirez will have netted, whatever that may be, and a lot more plate appearances for Mike Aviles.
What we’ve really been discussing, then, is not Ramirez’s ceiling, but Ramirez’s value as an insurance policy versus the opportunity cost of not trading him. We may think we know his open-market value; I’d contend that we don’t, because we rarely know any MLB player’s open-market value. What we do know, all too well, is the cost of needing an infielder.