Any time you lose a former All-Star from your lineup, the roster takes a hit almost impossible to recover from.
The injury to Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, an All-Star last season in his second full season in the Major Leagues, will leave a void in the Tribe’s lineup, even though his .234 average may appear as though it would be easy to replace.
Kipnis has historically been a slow starter in the Majors, spending more than half of the month of April 2012 batting below .200 and not reaching the .200 mark in 2013 until the final day of the month. The pop in his bat (four home runs and 12 RBI this season), his ability to disrupt the game on the base paths (including four stolen bases in five attempts), and his effort in the field, where he is more known as an all-out player, once earning the moniker “Dirtbag” from former manager Manny Acta, are harder to replace.
Enter 21-year-old Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez began his second tour with the Indians on Friday, when he was recalled from Triple-A Columbus to replace Kipnis on the roster after he exited Tuesday’s 6-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels in the fourth inning with a strained oblique muscle on his right side. The club originally hoped it was just a cramp and short term injury, but it appears more and more likely that Kipnis will not return from the disabled list at the end of the mandatory 15 days.
Three to five weeks looks to be the more likely absence for Kipnis, with Memorial Day being a potential target date on the calendar.
Ramirez came up with the Indians for the stretch run last season, a surprise call up of a young 20-year-old prospect who had never even played a game above Double-A.
He appeared in his first game on September 1st. In the top of the ninth in a scoreless tie in Detroit, he took over for Carlos Santana on the bases after a leadoff walk to the Tribe backstop. He moved to second on another walk, to third on a sacrifice bunt, and after an intentional walk, scored on Mike Aviles’ grand slam off of Joaquin Benoit, the deciding blast in a 4-0 victory.
He continued with pinch-running and defensive replacement opportunities until September 9th, when fans were given a taste of just how effectively a speedster can change the course of a game. In his first at bat of the game, Ramirez singled to left. The next batter, right fielder Drew Stubbs, hit a 3-2 pitch to third baseman Mike Moustakas, who threw out the speedy Stubbs at first. Ramirez, running hard the entire play, moved up all the way to third base on the infield groundout and the pressure of the situation may have caused first baseman Eric Hosmer to make an errant throw back to third trying to nab Ramirez. Instead, the ball shot past the third baseman, allowing Ramirez to score from first on a ball that never left the infield.
Ramirez appeared in 15 games for the Indians in 2013, including a pair of starts. He stepped to the plate 14 different times, registering hits in four of his 12 official at bats on the season (.333 batting average). One of the four hits was a triple late in an 8-1 win over Chicago just days before his 21st birthday. He did not steal a base, but was picked off once.
In the field, he made just one error. It came at third base on a weak infield hit, a position he had played just eight times throughout his entire minor league career. The lacking contributions late season from Lonnie Chisenhall forced the club to get creative at the hot corner at the time, even in the midst of a pennant and playoff push.
Ramirez missed an opportunity to make the big league club out of Spring Training after undergoing surgery on his left thumb in the offseason. The injury and the uncertainty of how quickly he would recover may have helped force the club to look at different utility options prior to the season, including players like Elliot Johnson.
While he missed the entire spring camp, the injury does not appear to have affected his bat at the plate in Columbus in his first exposure to Triple-A pitching.
At the time of his recall, the switch-hitting Ramirez was batting .319. He had been held hitless in just five of his 23 games for the Clippers. He started the season with hits in each of his first four games and seven of eight. He had a seven-game hitting streak in the middle of the month with three multi-hit games.
Ramirez has surprised even more with the long ball. He has already hit four home runs, exceeding any single-season career high, in just the first month of the year. He hit two in a game against the Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit’s minor league Triple-A affiliate, on April 21st as part of a four-hit game with three runs batted in.
He has stolen eight bases in 13 attempts. In his 23 games, he has drawn more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight), boosting his on-base percentage to .365.
He has been successful from both sides of the plate so far this season. He is hitting .327 as a left-handed batter against right-handed pitching with eleven RBI and is hitting .314 against left-handed pitching as a right-handed batter with three of his home runs. Maybe just as beneficial for his potential contributions to the big league club will be his clutch hitting, as he is batting .353 on the season with two outs and runners in scoring position. He is hitting .286 overall with runners in scoring position, .333 with runners on base, and .419 when ahead in the count.
Defensively, Ramirez has seen the bulk of his work at second base this season, which plays well with his addition to the Major League roster. He had logged innings at second in 14 different games and has not made an error there. The versatile Ramirez has also played one game at third base, one game in center field, and eight games at shortstop, where he has made all three of his errors this season.
He has always hit for good average in the minors, hitting .272 for Akron last season with six triples and an Eastern League-leading 38 stolen bases. He hit .354 combined for Lake County and Mahoning Valley in 2012 and .325 in 2011 in the Arizona Fall League.
The Indians made a roster move on Saturday, designating utility player Johnson for assignment, which will open the door for regular playing time for Ramirez and Aviles at second base. It may also open up a consistent spot as a utility guy on the team’s roster even when Kipnis returns, with Aviles being the only truly versatile position player remaining with the club.
Ramirez can affect the game in a variety of ways. He is young and fast, causing pitchers and defenses to have to rush throws frequently. Weak contact at the plate can still translate to infield hits and errors from pressured defenses. He did not have an opportunity to be a threat with the stolen bases last season, which should change with more regular playing time this year, but his speed and hustle were well recognized by the opposition in 2013.
Ramirez will not be able to replace Kipnis and his contributions to the dugout and the lineup. He can, however, lessen that blow for the next three to five weeks while the Tribe’s All-Star recuperates from his strain and the team deals with the strain of losing one of its young star players.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer