I’m fascinated by Harold Ramírez. You know how Twins catcher/utilityman/mascot Willians Astudillo became an international sensation late last season? Ramírez has some Astudillo to his game—short by MLB standards, plump, great bat-to-ball skills, and strangely available...at least he was until the Marlins inked the minor league free agent.
Ramírez arrived at Spring Training as a curiosity, but hopes to prove himself as a legitimate complementary piece to the existing Marlins core.
How did he get here? Signed to minor league deal on November 25, 2018
2018 MiLB Stats: .320/.365/.471, 11 HR in 120 G
2019 ZiPS Projection: .238/.281/.335, 7 HR in 123 G
Entering his eighth professional season, the Colombian outfielder is a .301/.355/.413 hitter in his minor league career.
However, the slash line doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Baseball America ranked Ramírez as the No. 10 prospect in the Pirates organization entering the 2015 campaign, bullish about his hit tool and speed. He justified that by dominating the Florida State League as a 20-year-old (163 wRC+), rising to No. 5 on the next edition of the list. He was also No. 95 among BA’s overall MLB top prospects. To put that in perspective, Ian Happ, a developing outfielder of exactly the same age, ranked No. 87 on the list and has since shown himself to be a solid big leaguer.
Ramírez’s MiLB experience has been split pretty evenly between the Pirates and Blue Jays organizations; he made the move along with veteran left-hander Francisco Liriano in a 2016 trade.
Since then, Ramírez has endured a rapid fall and rebound.
He played just one game with Double-A New Hampshire—August 3, 2016—before hitting the shelf with a season-ending left knee injury. The following year was arguably his worst ever (86 wRC+ in 489 PA). Eno Sarris, formerly of FanGraphs, illustrated how his reduced athleticism and heavy ground-ball habit made for a disastrous combination:
Ramírez adjusted. He went from a 2.20 GB/FB in 2017 to 1.49 GB/FB this past summer. The 11 home runs nearly doubled his career high. Perhaps most encouraging, Ramírez was 16-for-18 on stolen base attempts, volume and efficiency that suggest he felt healthy again.
One caveat cannot be ignored, though: Ramírez did this while competing at Double-A for the third straight season. Are his 2018 stats the product of familiarity or genuine improvement? Likely some of both.
The Marlins pursued Ramírez via free agency after he carried that hot streak into the Venezuelan Winter League. The everyday right fielder for Leones del Caracas slashed .381/.459/.556 with nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (20) through 185 plate appearances. Half the MLB teams submitted bids for his services, according to Walter Villa of Baseball America (subscription required), and Toronto attempted to woo him back with a $32,000 bonus. Ramírez chose Miami and a lighter guaranteed payday, determining that it was his “biggest opportunity” to make a major league impact.
His injury history and recent workload do not seem to be serious concerns. He appeared in each of the first three Grapefruit League games, running the bases aggressively and making this smooth sliding catch:
Circumstances have changed significantly since December. The Marlins signed corner outfielder Curtis Granderson and expect him to stick around. Fellow veteran Neil Walker pushed Peter O’Brien to right field, casting even more doubt about how Ramírez can squeeze onto the Opening Day roster.
Even so, there’s a nice window during the first half of 2019 for Ramírez to potentially earn a call-up. The Marlins will eventually be leaning on their Triple-A outfield depth; it’s just a question of where he belongs on that depth chart. Spring Training performance figures to be a factor in splitting those hairs.