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Why Hanley Ramirez?

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The Indians signed Hanley Ramirez, and it’s not 2009. What gives?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Late Saturday night, the Cleveland Indians agreed to a minor-league deal with free agent designated hitter Hanley Ramirez that could be worth as much as $1 million with incentives.

Two questions you may have about that signing:

  1. Is it that Hanley Ramirez?
  2. Why?

Yes, it is that Hanley Ramirez. The former superstar who looked like he was on a path to Cooperstown early in his career as a power-hitting shortstop with the wheels to be a monster on the bases. A true triple threat of a player basking in the Florida Marlins sun.

From 2007 to 2009 — the undeniable peak of Ramirez — only Albert Pujols and Chase Utley had higher WAR, and he ranked 10th in the majors with 113 stolen bases. The guy was a monster at one point, let’s just get that on the table right away.

The Marlins smartly extended him in 2009 for $70 million over six years, but wound up trading him to the Dodgers midway through the 2012 season. There he had his best offensive season ever in an injury-shortened 2013 campaign in which he slashed .345/.402/.638 in 86 games.

And finally, in 2015, he joined his most recent team, the Boston Red Sox. After signing a four-year, $88 million deal to join the Sox, he sputtered to a 103 wRC+ over two-and-a-half seasons where his work ethic and desire to even play baseball were put into question.

That’s hardly the whole story of Ramirez’s time in Boston, though. Specifically, his disastrous 2018 season has more to tell than a .254/.313/.395 slash and -0.2 wins. Which brings us to why on earth the Indians would bother bringing in a 35-year-old with a history of being a headache who has seemingly nothing to offer a team such as the Indians.

Just to get it out of the way, it’s a minor-league deal. There’s literally no risk here. That should be the starting point for all discussions involving MiLB deals with invites to spring training — this isn’t the Indians jeopardizing the future of the club or spending stupid money on a big-name free agent. It’s the perfect way to find guys who can produce at no risk to the team’s bottom line.

For the Indians, Ramirez’s upside is clear: He’s still hitting the ball hard, as he showed when he was attempting a comeback in the Dominican Winter League last November:

Even in 2018 — when he so bad for the Red Sox that they DFA’d him in the middle of the season, despite still owing him around $15 million — Ramirez had a hard-hit rate (balls hit over 95 miles per hour) of 46.5 percent. There are a lot of other things that go into being a good hitter, of course, but among batters with at least 140 batted ball events last season, Ramirez ranked 27th ahead of some no-name players like Anthony Rendon (44.6 percent hard-hit rate), Bryce Harper (45.1), and Mike Trout (46.2). Ramirez can also still spread the ball around like his old self, with 38.2 percent of his hits in 2018 being pulled, 36.8 going center, and the remaining 25 percent going oppo.

Ramirez is probably not going to be Mike Trout just because he had a higher percentage of balls hit really hard, but with no risk on a minor-league deal, it’s well worth giving it a shot that he can do something productive. And if he does produce as a full-time DH? Then the Indians can field a major-league lineup just about every day with Carlos Santana at first base and the athletic Jake Bauers in a corner outfield spot — roster flexibility be damned.

Ramirez’s primary competition at the old-man-DH position is likey Matt Joyce, who the Indians signed on a minor-league deal prior to spring training. Both project to be around league average hitters, with Ramirez having a slight edge in power, and Joyce evening things out with his better eye at the plate. Either would be a fine addition to the lineup if they live up to their remaining potential, but give me those dingers for my money.