Three years ago at this time, Jose Ramirez was a scuffling utility infielder who was struggling to make it at the big league level. Forget becoming an All-Star, some wondered if Ramirez would ever hit Major League pitching and he appeared to have the career trajectory of Giovanny Urshela, a strong defender who could not hit a lick.
It is hard to believe that was only three years ago as Ramirez has terrorized MLB pitching the last two seasons and is back at it again this year. Ramirez has found a home at third base, no longer a utility player. Instead, J-Ram is now one of the Tribe’s most important player and arguably the team’s best hitter. He has sure come a long way.
On June 7, 2015, Ramirez was hitting a paltry .180 with one home run and eight RBI. He had broken camp with the Indians. The club needed a shortstop as future star Francisco Lindor was deemed not quite ready for the Majors (for a litany of reasons) and then-third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall was not exactly a proven commodity, maddeningly inconsistent at that time. He also left something to be desired as a fielder at the hot corner, hence why he is an outfielder today. Ramirez was viewed as a backup plan at third and a stopgap at short. He was not seen as a long-term answer at anything. After that June 7th game, Ramirez was sent to Columbus. He clearly had work to do to even be a viable utility player in the Majors.
Save for a one-game cameo appearance in July, Ramirez was not seen in Cleveland again until early August. The trades of veteran free-agent busts Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn opened up spots on the Tribe roster. The Indians wanted to give Ramirez, still only 22 years old at the time, one more shot to prove he belonged on the club.
That is when a transformation began. Ramirez, perhaps sensing his opportunities were running short, began hitting better than ever. It was a slow start. He hit .241 that August, with a home run and eight RBI. Those obviously are not good numbers, but for a guy who was completely lost at the plate for three months, it was a good springboard. In September, he hit .306 with four home runs and 11 RBI. Rather than a September mirage, it was a sign of things to come.
Despite a strong showing over the final two months of 2015, Ramirez still went into 2016 with nothing guaranteed. He had to prove himself. While he broke camp with the Indians, he was not yet viewed as a strong everyday player. The team still saw him as a utility player. However, third base was still an unsettled position, so he was going to get the opportunity to play there a lot. Lindor was a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2015 and a budding star at shortstop, while Jason Kipnis was an All-Star at second base. The middle infield jobs were spoken for. Juan Uribe was a veteran free agent addition at third, though some correctly viewed him as on his last legs. That would be where Ramirez would get the lion-share of his work. He was also used in the outfield while Michael Brantley struggled to return from his shoulder injury.
Ramirez, as the 2016 season played out, began showing he was more than a part-time utility player. He became an important player on a team that came within one win of capturing its first World Series title since 1948. He hit .312, with 11 home runs and 76 RBI. Some wondered if he had a career year.
He was just warming up.
Rather than taking a chance that Ramirez was just blossoming over having had a career year, the Indians jumped on the chance to give him a five-year contract extension worth a minimum of $26 million, with team option years in 2022 and 2023. The gamble paid off and big. That contract seems like a steal now. Ramirez is making less than $3 million this year, a season after coming in third in the American League MVP voting. Last season, he rewarded the Indians faith in him by hitting .318 with 29 bombs and 83 RBI. He was again a big reason the Tribe won a second straight A.L. Central Division title.
Even after last year, Ramirez still seemd to have doubters. He was an All-Star starter at third and MVP finalist and had just completed a second season of hitting over .300. Perhaps his somewhat diminutive 5-foot-9 stature had something to do with that. To look at him, he is not an imposing player at the plate. He doesn’t have the look of an Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton or Bryce Harper, who just look like mashers to see them. Maybe some Indians fans still can not shake the memory of just how bad things got for Ramirez only three years ago.
Still, Ramirez is continuing to prove any and all doubters wrong. Things did look bleak the first week or so this season. From 3/29-4/8, Ramirez was really having a rough go at the dish. He was hitting .061 with one home run and four RBI through nine games. Was he regressing? The Indians were saying that he was just meeting with bad luck, with hard-hit outs. The club thought that he would start looking like the player that he was the last two seasons once some of those hits started to drop into play rather than being caught. Fans worried he was regressing to the decent player he was once thought to become rather than the superstar he had turned into from 2016-17.
Team management was correct, however. He has started hitting and hitting at a big-time clip since his early struggles. Starting 4/9 and through Saturday’s game, Ramirez was hitting .342 in 28 games. That goes with ten home runs and 20 RBI. He is again hitting at an All-Star, superstar level. He and Lindor are again one of the game’s better 1-2 lineup punches. If he keeps hitting like this, Ramirez will likely be at his second Midsummer Classic this Summer.
Three years ago, it was fair to wonder if he would be on the Indians roster or even on a big league club by early 2018. Now, he is an everyday third baseman. He can still man second, short, and the outfield when needed. However, he has a home and strong footing in the Majors. His contract value is going to go up over the coming seasons. Still, even the option years of $11 million and $13 million are complete bargains for a hitter of Ramirez’s ilk.
The Indians took a chance last March when they inked Ramirez to an extension. It could have blown up in their faces if 2016 had proven to be a career campaign. Now Ramirez has two full seasons of big numbers and is embarking on a third. Heading into Sunday’s game with the Royals, Ramirez was batting .279 with 11 homers and 24 RBI. The power numbers by the end of this year may trump last season’s career high totals. The batting average will only go up as he continues to put his first week-plus of struggles further in the rearview mirror.
Ramirez also took a chance when he signed the extension last year. He was looking for security in case he did, indeed, fall back from his 2016 numbers a little bit. At most, should player options be picked up, Ramirez will have made about $50 million for seven seasons from 2017-2023. That is chump change considering many guys who hit like him make about $20 million in one year. Still, he will only be 30 in 2023, so if he does maintain his superstar status, Ramirez should cash in with the Indians or another team. He will still be young enough to earn a lucrative, long-term deal.
You would have to believe he will get that now. It is obvious, at this point, that Ramirez is not regressing and he certainly is not going to again become that 22-year-old who was in way over his head in the first half of 2015. Ramirez is a big reason the Indians have had such great success the last two years and should be a playoff and division contender again this year. Once on the verge of being on the outs with the organization, he is now one of the Indians’ most indispensable players. He is certainly headed for great things and anyone still doubting whether he is for real or not has been sleeping for the better part of two and a half years.
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