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Oops: The Jose Ramirez Story

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Prospectors love to reflect on the prospects they got right. What about the ones they missed?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

Ah, the minor league prospect world, where rankings mean a lot to the fan. That’s what top prospect lists are there for after all. To bring the farm system closer to the fans that may not be able to see it first hand.

Our responsibility as prospect writers is to get out there and try to explain why. And when one hits, the pats on the back immediately begin.

Having seen the Atlanta Braves Ozzie Albies as an 18-year-old and Ronald Acuña, Jr. since the early stages of the 2016 season, you knew they were going to be special players. As I watched both of their quick rises up close and personal, it wasn’t difficult to portend this first full-season that they had.

And then there is Jose Ramirez.

Ramirez is a budding superstar (I don’t take that word lightly, by the way. Three great seasons isn’t enough for me. A star, yes, a superstar, let’s wait until just a little bit more). With consecutive strong seasons, he’s on the cusp of being mentioned in MLB’s elite, which is mind boggling considering Francisco Lindor was always seen as that guy for the Indians. Lindor has met the hype and thanks to Ramirez, they now have two of “those guys.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ramirez went unsigned in the 2009 international class, and later that year, he agreed to a deal for $50,000 after a player showcase. Ramirez played well from the day he stepped on to a minor league baseball field as an 18-year-old in the Arizona League, showing decent contact skills and nice gap pop. He made a relatively quick rise and earned his first cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2013 without ever having a Triple-A at bat. Ramirez went 4-for-12 in his big league debut.

Heading into that 2013 season, here’s what our own John Sickels said in his Baseball Prospect Book:

SLEEPER ALERT!! While everyone is talking about Francisco Lindor, Dorssys Paulino, and Ronny Rodriguez when Indians infield prospects are discussed, Jose Ramirez is sneaking up on us. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, Ramirez has hit the shit out of the baseball in North America, showing a mature contact hitting approach, decent plate discipline, pop to the gaps, and speed on the bases. Previously a shortstop, he moved over to second base in deference to Lindor last year and thrived, posting an amazing .993 fielding percentage while demonstrating plenty of range and reasonable arm strength. That kind of reliability is very rare for such a young player, especially when coupled with good defensive tools. He was age-appropriate for the Midwest League at age 19, so we can’t say this was some sort of calendar-related fluke. Ramirez doesn’t have big home run power, but that’s not a requirement in a second baseman and he does everything else well. Amazingly, despite his age, performance, and athleticism, he does not show up highly on prospect lists. Scouts are skeptical about his small size (listed 5-9 but probably smaller) and many don’t think he’ll hold up at higher levels. You would think that the Jose Altuve example would give evaluators pause, especially since Altuve (who is even smaller than Ramirez) was in the Appy League at age 19 and hadn’t emerged yet. In any event, maybe the scouts are right and Ramirez won’t pan out, but given the balance of evidence I think he needs a lot more attention than he’s received, and a year from now this grade may look too low. Grade C+.

His sentiment from scouts was true. No one really believed Ramirez would excel to All Star levels. Heading into 2014, Ramirez was the consensus No. 8 prospect in the system, jumping four spots from the year prior. FanGraphs was the highest on him at No. 5, citing he “could develop into an average or better second baseman...[or] end up as an above-average utility player,” while John had him at No. 7. Bleacher Report and MLB Pipeline didn’t even mention him. Basically, Ramirez entered 2014 roughly a top 175 to 200 prospect with intriguing interest, but not an overwhelming can’t-miss prospect.

Of course he left that season on his way to becoming a fixture in the Indians lineup.

His first two seasons — 2014 and 2015 — showed a little bit of the concern’s many scouts had in him. But in 2016, his first full season as an Indian regular, Ramirez slashed .312/.363/.462 with an .825 OPS. The plate awareness many liked in him was there as he struck out just 62 times in 618 plate appearances. He showed that speed on the base paths, swiping 22 bases, and that gap power, ripping 46 doubles.

The next season was even better because suddenly, Ramirez was a home run hitter. He led baseball with 56 doubles while hitting 29 home runs. He didn’t lose anything in his contact ability as his batting average rose and his strikeout rate stayed the same at 10 percent. His .957 OPS was in the top 15 of all of baseball.

Ramirez had an interesting 2018. He walked 108 times, hit an astounding 38 doubles and 39 home runs all while posting a career-high 34 stolen bases. His average took a hit, but he posted a career-best .387 OBS. He continues to excel in a lineup that continues to win.

All this and he’s just 25.

This isn’t a tale to bash prospectors by any means. Ramirez is actually my favorite part about prospect writing. Watching the guy nobody thought would become a, dare I say, superstar, but thought had the appeal of a super-utility player. Ramirez could have easily been a Rob Refsnyder if you went strictly on scouting reports, but instead is becoming much more of an Altuve, who incidentally, was also left out of top 100 lists on his way to becoming a perennial MVP-caliber player.

There are plenty more that share Ramirez’s rise, he’s not alone. He has become one of the more fun ones to watch in a young Cleveland lineup.