Aramis Ramirez Returns to Pittsburgh

Brent Morel started at third base for the Pirates on Monday. The same Brent Morel who has a career .272 on-base percentage. He started again at third base last night as well. This must have struck fear into the hearts of Pittsburgh Pirates fans, perhaps giving them some flashbacks to the bad old days. Thankfully, that shouldn’t happen very often, as the prodigal son — Aramis Ramirez — has returned. The Pirates re-acquired him on Thursday evening in exchange for minor-league pitcher Yhonathan Barrios.

When Aramis Ramirez left the shores of the Allegheny, he had accumulated just 3.2 WAR in his 2,253 plate appearances in a Pittsburgh uniform. But with the Pirates’ National League Central rivals in Chicago and Milwaukee, he went on to become the player the Pirates always envisioned him as. Now on the brink of 40 WAR for his career — a bar that has only been crossed by 40 other third baseman in big-league history — Ramirez is back in black and gold, and Neal Huntington and Co. couldn’t have picked a better time to bring him back into the fold.

The Pirates have had a middling offense this year. They ran cold in April (82 wRC+, 25th overall), hot in May (112, seventh), and have settled into the middle of the pack in June (100, 16th) and July (109, ninth). For the season, they rank 13th with a 102 wRC+. The problem throughout has been their power hitting. Here’s how they have stacked up in some power categories, by month:

Pirates Power Hitting Stats & Ranks (Pitchers Excluded), By Month
Category April May June July Overall
ISO .136 / 17th .143 / 18th .104 / 29th .150 / 13th .132/ 25th
SLG .373 / 23rd .415 / 11th .375 / 25th .416 / 13th .395/ 17th
HR 18 / t-15th 25 / 22nd 13 / 30th 15 / t-12th 71 / 27th

Not pretty, and it looked even worse before last night’s drubbing of the Nationals. Even when they’ve been winning in bunches, as they were in June, they have had trouble putting the ball on the other side of the fence. In June, they went 17-9, but only outscored their opponents by a scant 13-run margin (95-82). This is a bit of a season-long trend, and it is a problem that Ramirez can address.

Ramirez isn’t slugging like he used to, but he is still well above the major-league average in both ISO and SLG. And on the Pirates, he’ll slot in as tied for second in ISO with Pedro Alvarez, though Alvarez may be on the outs. Ramirez would be third in slugging on the team, behind just Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. Ramirez isn’t getting on base much this season, but the Bucs aren’t as lacking there. What they need is consistent power, and Ramirez can be that guy. It was actually the Pirates who gave him a little bit of a jump start. Since the Brewers came to Pittsburgh on June 8th, Ramirez is hitting .303/.351/.508 with five homers, good for a 131 wRC+. That’ll play nicely.

Ramirez will also slot in nicely in the Pirates defensive scheme. The Brewers shifted a hair more often than did the Pirates in 2013, and nearly 600 times in 2014. Their 2015 shifts are down, but the point is that Ramirez is no stranger to the shift. As for his prowess afield, UZR and DRS aren’t of the same mind on Ramirez’s defense, and Inside Edge isn’t exactly on the bandwagon either, but we can at least say that he’ll make the routine plays, and that he has a previous history of excellent play in the field. Perhaps in his last hurrah, and in the midst of a pennant race, his defense will sparkle one last time. In fact, even not in a pennant race, he still has the occasional flashy play in him. From July 3rd:

I bring up his defense at third base, because it would be my guess that when Josh Harrison comes back from injury that Ramirez won’t be the one moving — my hunch is that Harrison moves across the diamond to first base. Neither player has ever logged time at first, but Harrison is used to carrying multiple gloves in his duffel bag, and is young enough to be open to learning new things. Ramirez, on the other hand, has never played anywhere but third base, and would seem to have little incentive to learn a new position for the last couple months of his career. That belief is stoked by Huntington being non-committal about Ramirez’s position upon Harrison’s return.

Either way, the Pirates shouldn’t have much of an issue keeping both bats in the lineup (provided they can divorce themselves from the concept of “Jordy Mercer, everyday player”), and their stretch-run batting order could look like this:

  1. Josh Harrison, RHB
  2. Neil Walker, SHB
  3. Andrew McCutchen, RHB
  4. Starling Marte, RHB
  5. Aramis Ramirez, RHB
  6. Jung Ho Kang, RHB
  7. Francisco Cervelli, RHB
  8. Gregory Polanco, LHB

That is a talented lineup. But there’s a problem — it’s careening to the right. It’s careening so far to the right, you wonder if manager Clint Hurdle will be tempted to stick with Polanco at the top of the lineup just to break up all the right-handed batters. Polanco has spent most of his season either by hitting leadoff (38 starts) or in the two hole (21), though he has also hit seventh a little bit as well (11). The only thing that’s really a certainty in Hurdle’s batting order is that McCutchen hits third (Polanco and Walker have settled into the first and second spots with Harrison on the shelf, but that may not hold when he returns). Everything else is multiple choice.

No matter how he stacks the deck, there is going to be a lot of right-handed hitter action this fall in Pittsburgh. That’ll be great if they to face Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner, but most of the NL’s top teams are thin on left-handed starting pitching. (As an aside, this lineup composition is actually a point in favor of keeping the left-handed hitting Alvarez, who could serve as a valuable bat off the bench.)

That’s not to say that the Pirates shouldn’t have made this deal — they should have. Ramirez is a player who fits their team and they didn’t have to pay a lot to obtain him. Barrios entered the year as the 30th-best prospect in the Pirates system according to Kiley, but the 23-year-old reliever has struck out just one more batter than he has walked since being promoted to Triple-A. The Pirates aren’t going to miss him. They also don’t want to miss the playoffs this year, so they took steps to acquire as much talent as they could, and they’ll worry about the raft of right-handed pitchers they’ll have to face later.

Finally, Aramis Ramirez has returned to Pittsburgh. The Pirates and their fans are hoping it goes better this time than last time. Certainly the expectations are different. This team has made the postseason two year in a row, and they’re on pace for a third, something that hasn’t happened since 1990-1992, and has only happened twice in Pirates history (the other being 1970-1972). Ramirez might not be what he once was, but he is going to help this Pirates team. And with them, he has a chance to go out on top. What else can you ask for?

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Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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The Dude
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The Dude

“The Pirates have had a middling offense this year. They ran cold in April (82 wRC+, 25th overall), hot in May (112, seventh), and have settled into the middle of the pack in June (100, 16th) and July (109, ninth). For the season, they rank 13th with a 102 wRC+.”

Like, that’s just your opinion man. They have an 8 NERD score you kumquat.