Pitching for his future in the Seattle Mariners organization, Erasmo Ramirez demonstrated some of his best abilities in Monday's start against the Angels. The twenty-four year old attacked the strike zone well, established his fastball early, and rarely fell behind in the count. He kept his two-seamer out of trouble spots and had lefties off-balance with a good changeup. He even threw a couple of decent sliders, including a perfectly located bender that started in Mike Trout's wheelhouse before breaking into the dirt for a swinging strike three.
But like we've seen so often before, Ramirez struggled to put hitters away. The Nicaraguan doesn't have a good breaking ball and, Trout notwithstanding, the Angels capitalized. David Freese, Erick Aybar, and Johnny Giavotella smacked bad sliders for hard base hits in successive at-bats in the second inning, helping to chase Ramirez from the game early. Even when he got ahead in the count, the Angels were able to foul off close pitches while they waited for mistakes.
The outing encapsulated Ramirez all too well. As a righty without a plus breaking ball and no weapon for same-handed hitters, he's subject to the whims of the batted ball to an uncomfortable degree. Neither his slider nor his curve are good enough to regularly induce swings on pitches out of the strike zone and they don't have enough movement to consistently draw weak contact when thrown for a strike. He was also burned by bad control of his secondary offerings, a problem that has plagued him in the past, and one that partially explains how he's nibbled his way to a career 3.14 BB/9 ratio after throwing nothing but strikes in the minors. Ultimately, Ramirez is a tweener without the track record or upside to warrant a spot on a very strong Mariners pitching staff. Without an obvious role on the team, Ramirez no longer fits into Seattle's plans.
Out of options and on the periphery of the club's rotation, the only way the Mariners could keep Ramirez is to put him in the bullpen. As Scott touched on yesterday, barring an injury, that looks unfeasible as well. Logistically, there just isn't a spot available: Fernando Rodney, Danny Farquhar, Charlie Furbush, Yoervis Medina, and Tom Wilhelmsen will almost certainly head north with Seattle. I don't know why four bad innings this spring would outweigh the job Dominic Leone did last year, so let's pencil him in too. Bound by the deepest bench the Mariners have had this decade, Lloyd McClendon can only carry seven relievers, leaving the final spot to either Carson Smith, one of the lefties, or Ramirez.
Of those options, Ramirez is the least appealing to a team trying to win. Even projecting a velocity uptick in a shift to the bullpen, Ramirez doesn't have the raw stuff Smith and Leone posses, and he's not as good at being left handed as Tyler Olson or David Rollins (the jury's still out on Joe Saunders). He could conceivably make the club as a long man, but Wilhelmsen already fills that role. Damningly, there's no good way to craft a relief corps where Ramirez isn't the worst option out of the 'pen. If this were 2012, the M's might be able to stomach sending both Leone and Smith down to protect Ramirez from waivers. In a year like this though, where the Mariners are as good as they've been in over a decade, they should be playing with an optimal roster all season long.*
*That applies to Rollins as well. If the front office decides he's one of the team's seven or eight best relievers, great. If not, this isn't the year to sneak a Lucas Luetge into the system.
Ramirez shouldn't be stashed in the bullpen as emergency starting depth either. While he's one of only eight pitchers in the organization to start a big league game for Seattle, there's enough depth in the system to patch up the rotation in a pinch. Ramirez wouldn't be the first name out of the chute anyway but even conceding that the Mariners will need a seventh starter eventually, they have plenty of internal choices. Nobody in Peoria has had a better camp than Olson, and while he's worked exclusively in relief this spring, all twenty-seven of his appearances last year were as a starter. Jordan Pries was Tacoma's best pitcher last year and he's apparently added velocity while flashing a solid changeup. The usual pile of Triple-A veterans will also be on hand and, as the acquisitions of Aaron Harang and Chris Young proved, qualified external candidates come quickly and cheaply too. Ramirez would be a nice luxury, but his depth isn't necessary.
Without a place in the rotation or the bullpen, Ramirez is as good as gone. There's always the slim chance that he slips through waivers, but with his big league experience and strike throwing ability, plenty of teams will be happy to take a flier on a guy with a very real chance to stick in the back of a rotation as a No. 5 starter. For all of his struggles, the diminutive righty still has plenty of value: a number of executives told Bob Dutton that Ramirez is unlikely to pass through waivers, and I spoke with one AL scout who loves the idea of using him as a swingman. A big leaguer almost everywhere else, Ramirez is simply buried in a numbers game on one of the sport's best pitching staffs. Seattle won't be his last big league stop.
When Ramirez does surface elsewhere, we should remember that his new team is acquiring 2013/2014 Erasmo and not the 2012 edition, when he posted a 3.35/3.55/3.75 pitcher slash in limited duty. Actually, Ramirez's 2012 numbers might be a bit of a mirage anyway: he wasn't very good on the road, and his success at home was predicated on suppressing homers in a park so starved of offense that the organization brought the fences in before the next season. I don't want to seriously quote one year ballpark factors but 2012 Safeco has the lowest figure I can recall seeing. Either way, Ramirez has pitched like a replacement level starter ever since. There are worse ideas than trying to teach a young strike-thrower with an easy delivery how to throw a better slider, but whichever club acquires Ramirez isn't getting a slam dunk: he'll need to improve his secondary offerings to be anything more than what he's been for Seattle.
Ramirez isn't going away today or tomorrow. The Mariners will hold onto him until the last possible moment and if there's an injury to one of the locks in the bullpen, he may find himself on the club's twenty-five man roster. In and of itself, that wouldn't be a bad thing: it's always nice to give a player every last opportunity. But if Ramirez does make the team, he'll have to pitch his way into a meaningful role, and there hasn't been any recent indication that he's good enough to do so. It's sad to see a former prospect twist in the wind but his situation speaks volumes about how good this pitching staff will be in 2015.