There's a young man in the Toronto Blue Jays organization who has reinvented himself, converting from struggling outfielder to dominant reliever. And one of the most surprising things about his transformation is that he didn't even want to pitch.
Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Carlos Ramirez was once outfielder Carlos Ramirez, not so long ago. Originally signed in 2009 and assigned to the DSL Blue Jays at age 18, Ramirez batted .229 in 52 games, with five doubles, one triple, three homers and 14 RBI. He went down on strikes 56 times in 179 at-bats. Back in rookie-league ball in 2010 with the GCL Jays, it was more of the same (.205 BA, seven XBH, 12 RBI, 48 strikeouts in 151 AB).
Ramirez began to show slight improvement when he was assigned to the Bluefield Blue Jays in the Appalachian League in 2011, where he batted .232 with 11 XBH in 40 games, but he continued to strike out in nearly 35% of his at-bats (39 K in 112 AB) and showed little in terms of other playable tools. He would spend another ten games in Bluefield in 2012 before moving on to the Vancouver Canadians in the short-season Northwest League. It was there that he began to show signs that he was broadening his repertoire.
Ramirez's 2012 numbers with Vancouver were somewhat encouraging, compared to his previous three seasons. In a 42-game span, he batted .245 with five doubles, six triples, two homers and 19 RBI, while stealing seven bases.
He still struck out 45 times in 159 at-bats while drawing only four walks, a continuing sign that his free-swinging ways would come back to bite him as he advanced to full-season Class-A.
Still, in 2013 with the Lansing Lugnuts in the Midwest League, Ramirez began to show definite extra-base pop (27 doubles, five triples, seven homers) en route to arguably his best season up to that point. While he did bat an anemic .228, striking out 102 times in 395 at-bats, it seemed there was a chance he could turn the corner. His encore appearance with Lansing in 2014 (.176 BA in 28 games) put an end to that.
It was around this time that Ramirez was asked to switch to the mound. In May of 2014, he was sent to extended Spring Training to work with roving minor-league instructor and former major-league pitcher Dane Johnson. On June 17th, Ramirez was reassigned to Bluefield to get his feet wet as a newly-converted pitcher. The results were immediately encouraging: in 17 appearances Ramirez posted a 2.62 ERA, striking out 24 in 34 1/3 innings.
Hoping to build on this early success, in 2015 the Blue Jays advanced Ramirez to Lansing to begin the season. His numbers were a mixed bag (4.73 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings, 14 walks, eight saves), and his time with the Lugnuts was briefly interrupted by seven appearances in June after he was bumped up to the Dunedin Blue Jays in the Florida State League.
Ramirez would re-sign with the Blue Jays as a minor-league free agent after the 2015 season, and he opened 2016 with Dunedin. This is where it gets interesting.
In 30 appearances with Dunedin, Ramirez posted an excellent 2.20 ERA while striking out a batter per inning (41 in 41 IP). He also gave up only 32 hits, though he walked an additional 21 (4.61 BB/9 IP). Overall, a strong performance.
The 2017 season, for Ramirez, would be far better. Beginning the year with the Class-AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats in the Eastern League, Ramirez pitched 23 2/3 innings in 18 appearances without giving up an earned run. He struck out 29 in that span, and even managed to cut his walks significantly (2.66/9 IP).
Soon, it was off to Buffalo to pitch for the Bisons in the Class-AAA International League, where in seven appearances (14 IP), Ramirez allowed only six hits, three walks, and gave up not a single run, earned or otherwise. He struck out sixteen, as well.
On September 1st, Toronto manager John Gibbons announced Ramirez would be one of the team's September call-ups. He made his MLB debut on September 1st at Baltimore, pitching two perfect innings with two strikeouts in what would ultimately be a 1-0 Orioles win in 13 innings. He took the mound again two days later, pitching two more scoreless innings while giving up only one hit and striking out two. On September 6th he faced the Red Sox at Fenway; again, it was two hitless innings (one walk, one strikeout) in a 6-1 Boston win over the Jays.
Ramirez is cut from the short-relief cloth; he's a fastball-slider guy, and he actually has leaned heavily on his slider since his debut.
His fastball has some natural sink and tail to it, sitting 92-93, while his slider is a mid-80's offering with a bit of a drop to it and decent lateral movement. At times, it almost looks like he's just taking something off his fastball or throwing a change-up, but not that often.
He's been reasonably aggressive about going right at hitters (62% strike percentage) and generates great leverage from his 6'5” frame. As he appears now, Ramirez has the makings of a short-reliever, but development of a third pitch (splitter?) might need to have to happen before he could stick in the big leagues. His slider's lateral break is sometimes easy to read coming out of his hand, so in his case having a third pitch would help to give batters something else to worry about.
Ramirez is going to be interesting to watch, especially if he continues to refine his game. He's got a low-mileage arm, a prototypical pitcher's build, smooth and simple mechanics, and an apparent lack of fear. Even if he were to open 2018 in Triple-A, it won't be for long.