The underappreciated value of José Ramírez

July 20th, 2018

There will be so much talk when this season ends about how much money or Manny Machado will make. Two hundred million? Three hundred million? Four hundred? Nobody knows yet how the market will play out. Nobody knows how teams will view Machado's insistence on playing shortstop or Harper's troubling strikeout trends. Nobody knows which teams will dive headfirst into the bidding. Nobody can say just how high the price will go other than it will be high.

So consider this: The best player in baseball not named is making less than $2.5 million this year. Over the next three years, he will make $19 million … total. This is not to blame anyone. This isn't a sad story. The player and team happily signed this contract. It was a great fit for both of them.

This is only to say that Cleveland got the baseball steal of the century when it signed José Ramírez two years ago.

Can we talk for a minute about Ramirez? It seems to me that there aren't nearly enough dropped jaws over this guy's remarkable story. Start with this: He's 5-feet-9, 165 pounds and he leads the Majors in home runs with 30, one ahead of J.D. Martinez. Martinez is roughly twice as big as Ramírez. If they were boxing, well, they wouldn't be boxing because Ramírez would be a middleweight and Martinez would be Godzilla.

The bigger point is, Ramírez was always too small. That was the knock on him. That was the big reason he was a non-prospect who signed for $50,000 after a Cleveland scout named Ramon Peña saw him playing on a torn-up field in the Dominican Republic. No other team had any interest in Ramírez. No other Cleveland scout had any interest in Ramírez. He didn't have an arm. He didn't look like a ballplayer. And he was so small. Pena had to do a lot of convincing.

These impressions didn't go away even after Ramírez began hitting in the Minors, shocking everybody. He remained a low-level prospect. Too small is too small.

"Ramírez has little power and minimal physical projection, so some scouts worry that more advanced pitchers will eat him up," Baseball America wrote about him in 2013.

And the next year: "Ramírez has a smooth swing from both sides of the plate … but home runs aren't part of his game."

Do you know what Ramírez's Minor League high for home runs in a season was? Five. He hit 13 in his entire Minor League career. The grandest hope was that Ramírez might become a scrappy second baseman, might steal a few bases, might hit for a decent average. The more likely hope was that he would work out as a valuable utility player. Before the 2016 season, Cleveland decided to try Ramírez in left field to add some versatility.

Then 2016 happened, and Ramírez just crushed baseballs. He hadn't grown at all. Ramírez hadn't put on any weight, didn't look any different at all. But, man, did he hit different, right away, right at Spring Training. Balls started smashing fences. Then they started going over fences.

"He's stronger than people think," manager Terry Francona said during Spring Training, though he seemed as shocked by this fact as anybody. Ramírez was something of a long shot to make the team entering Spring Training, but he came out as the team's fifth outfielder. And he came out hitting right out of the gate.

Soon, it became apparent that 37-year-old Juan Uribe, who was playing third base, just wasn't cutting it. So Ramírez got some time at third. He played a lot of left field. He filled in a bit at second. All the while, he hit.

And then around Aug. 1, Cleveland decided: "Well, this is just stupid. Put him at third base already." Ramírez stayed there the last 58 games of the season, hit .339, slugged .533, and the Tribe was like: "What the heck do we have here?"

After the season ended, Cleveland offered Ramírez the aforementioned contract. It was a great match at the time. This was security for Ramírez, a player who had been written off all his life. This was a worthwhile gamble for Cleveland, a club that loved everything about Ramírez's will, his hunger to improve and his willingness to adapt to every situation.

No one knew that Ramírez was about to become the best non-Trout in baseball. Who could have seen that? Who could have known that Ramírez would hit a league-leading 56 doubles in 2017, that he would smash 29 home runs, that he would steal 17 bases and score 107 runs, while also playing superb third-base defense and earn an American League MVP Award vote?

Now, this year, Ramírez is doing better than that. He has those 30 homers, he's slugging .633 and he's stolen 20 bases in 23 attempts. Ramírez is playing Gold Glove defense. He's walking more than he's striking out -- who walks more than striking out in 2018? The guy is a phenomenon.

When Kurt Warner was a star in the NFL, I always thought that his story -- from grocery-store stocker to MVP quarterback -- simply could not be told enough times. It never lost its wonder. The same is true of Ramirez. Yes, Trout has his own great story, one often told, of 24 teams passing him up (including the Angels themselves, who took with the pick right before Trout).
But compare that to Ramirez, who might not have been signed to play professional baseball if not for the wisdom of one scout. He might have washed out in the lower Minor Leagues were it not for his determination and versatility. Ramirez happily took the deal Cleveland gave him after he had a good season because it offered security for his life, something he may never have expected from the game.
And now Ramirez might win the 2018 AL MVP Award, even with the years Trout and Boston's are having. We're talking about what Harper might make. What do you think teams would pay on the open market for Jose Ramirez now?