MLB Trade Action: Is Hanley Ramirez Right For The Dodgers?

The action has picked up on the MLB trade market. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Wandy Rodriguez for their starting rotation. The Philadelphia Phillies removed Cole Hamels from the market by locking him up to a six-year contract worth $144 million. But no deal looks as combustible—for better or worse—than the Los Angeles Dodgers’ deal to get Hanley Ramirez from the Miami Marlins as part of a four-player trade. So TheSportsNotebook begins with the Ramirez trade as we evaluate all of the above moves…

Los Angeles has a desperate need for offense.  The team ranks 12th in the National League in runs scored and the main culprit is a lack of consistent power, marked by their 15th place NL ranking in slugging percentage. A portion of this can be attributed to their home park, as Dodger Stadium has always been pitcher-friendly. Then add in road games at NL West rival San Diego and against the sterling pitching staff of San Francisco, and it’s hard to have a lineup whose numbers will dazzle. Still, the Dodgers can at least ask for a middle-of-the-pack performance in power, and therefore in runs and they are not getting that.

It’s been noted in mainstream media accounts of the deal that Ramirez has struggled for the past year and a half, and that at age 28, the Dodgers are gambling that a change of scenery is what the temperamental third baseman/shortstop needs. That’s true enough, but it is worth pointing out that Ramirez’ power is up this season after his awful 2011 campaign. In ’11, he only hit ten home runs for the season and slugged just .379. The latter stat is up to .428, which is still a far cry from what Los Angeles is looking for, but Hanley’s already hit fourteen home runs. The issue is going to be the batting average, which has languished in the .240s. Don Mattingly needs his new infielder to be driving the ball consistently, regardless of whether it gets out of the park or not. Because right now only Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are hitting the gaps with any consistency and no one else has a track record that suggests a miraculous transformation is impending.

What the Dodgers do reasonably well is get people on base, where they are seventh in the NL. Six everyday players have on-base percentages over .340, so if Hanley hits the ball in the gaps, there will be runners to come around. Over the long haul, I’m skeptical of Ramirez’s personal issues, which have lingered with the Marlins regardless of the manager. But for the short-term I buy into the change-of-scenery logic, including that he’ll get his shortstop gig back. After Miami signed Jose Reyes in the offseason, Ramirez was moved to third. He may still end up there in Los Angeles, but for now, with Dee Gordon on the disabled list and struggling at the plate anyway, Hanley will begin his Dodger career at short, with steady veteran utility infielder Jerry Hairston at third. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t still the starting combination when Gordon comes back, given that Hairston is hitting .299 and one of the six LA starters to be on base consistently.

Ramirez didn’t come to Los Angeles alone. The Dodgers also added 35-year-old lefty reliever Randy Choate, who’s been excellent the last two years in Miami and pretty good with Tampa Bay the two years prior to that. Pre-2009 he only had two seasons where he pitched enough for his stats to matter, and in neither case was it impressive. But Choate does appear to be a late bloomer, and if nothing else he’s hot this year with a buck-82 ERA and these reliever hot streaks tend to last the season.

So the new Magic Johnson-era Dodgers have gone bold with a high-profile acquisition that can be a goldmine or could blow up in their faces. The same goes for the pieces they traded away, particularly 22-year-old starter Nate Eovaldi. Already with 16 career starts under his belt, Eovaldi’s career ERA was 3.96, which is on the high side for Dodger Stadium, but good considering his age. With Los Angeles already too reliant on veterans in the rotation, dealing a promising young starter is extremely high risk. They also traded minor-leaguer Scott McGough, who has good stuff, but has yet to show consistency on the farm.

While acknowledging Ramirez’s transformative potential to this lineup if he gets hot, I like Miami’s end of the deal better because of Eovaldi’s upside and the fact it gives them further room to deal starting pitcher Josh Johnson. I think Los Angeles risked too much when it comes to young pitching, particularly given this is not an organization that should have been thinking “win now.” While Hanley’s youth means you can certainly keep him in town for a long time, his track record makes that a risk in of itself.

Moving on to Wandy Rodriguez, the Pirates dealt three minor-leaguers—two pitchers and an outfielder to get the 33-year-old Houston starter. Rodriguez came to the majors in 2005, has only pitched for Houston and since 2009 his ERA has stabilized consistently in the low 3s to mid-3s. He does not have great velocity, which made me wonder how well his stuff would transfer to an American League team, but since he’s staying in the soft NL Central, the Pirates can safely assume his numbers will basically translate. If anything, they might get a bit better. Even though Pittsburgh is not a pitcher’s park, Minute Maid Park in Houston is a hitter’s paradise.

The price Pittsburgh paid was reasonable. Rudy Owens is a 24-year-old minor league pitcher ready for the majors, but nothing in his track record says “star-in-waiting.” Colton Cain is even less impressive. Houston’s best long-term prospect is probably outfielder Robbie Grossman, who has tremendous plate discipline for a kid (104 walks in 2011) and just needs to develop a little more power in Double-A. Overall, since the Pirates can be assured Rodriguez will also be with them in 2013, this is a good deal for them.

If there are any questions on the Pittsburgh side it’s going to be whether they fixed the right area. The Pirates are already 5th in the NL in ERA, while ranking 11th in runs scored, and the everyday lineup could be improved by just about anyone at the big league level. But while I would agree that offense is the bigger need, I’d defend this trade on two grounds. First, the most important thing to do is acquire quality at good value regardless of the spot and Pittsburgh did that. Second, there’s nothing saying the Pirates rotation is going to hold up. While you can count on James McDonald and A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard’s best months were April and May and Rodriguez is a significant upgrade over Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens. This trade makes it much more likely Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle still has a strong staff in August and September. As to the offense, better no trade than a bad trade, and even at that, there’s still six days to go before the deadline.

Finally let’s close it out with a brief thought on Philly re-signing Hamels. The price tag is hefty and the Phillies badly need to replenish their farm system and get younger, but I still think this signing makes sense. Hamels is a big-game pitcher who has thrived in Philadelphia and letting him walk would have been devastating to the fan base. Philadelphia can now get on with the task of moving Shane Victorino and if they want to shop one of their big-name pitchers they can always put Roy Halladay on the market when he gets healthy.