[This is the first in what will be a series of articles on prospects in the Pirates' system appearing sporadically on this site, which is to say whenever I feel like writing them.]
Despite sounding and looking like a character from Hey Arnold!, a number of Pirate fans have taken notice of the slick-hitting Harold Ramirez thus far in Grapefruit League action. His two most notable occurrences this spring are 1) going 9 for 14 at the plate (as of the time of this writing) and leading all non-Jon Niese players in batting average for the spring, and 2) inspiring this hilarious, creepy, and unintentionally sexual quote from Clint Hurdle: “He goes up there with bad intentions, which excites me.” If he can play like this for the Pirates in the future, well, then it excites me too, skip.
Ramirez has proven himself to be quite a successful hitter at a relatively young age (he’s entering his age 21 season, but has four years’ experience in the minors since he was signed as an international free agent at the age of 16) and was listed as one of the top 100 prospects in baseball in an early version of the list produced by the KATOH projection system over at FanGraphs. Last year for high-A Bradenton in the extremely pitcher-friendly Florida State League, he ran a triple slash line of .337/.399/.458; the especially high on-base percentage seems to be in the vein of the front office’s emphasis on OBP over power, illustrated by their release of new Oriole Pedro Alvarez and signing of OBP machine John Jaso, who, believe it or not, is top 20 in the Majors in OBP over the past four seasons for players with at least 1000 plate appearances.
Back to Ramirez, though; he gets on base a lot and has pretty good speed once he’s on the bases, with 57 stolen bases over his past three seasons at various levels of A-ball (he only has a 66% success rate, however, which is a little below the generally accepted break even point around 75%). His profile in the 2016 Baseball Prospectus was hopeful, yet lamented his lack of positional versatility in the outfield, as his arm is really only good enough to play left. This could limit his ability to break into the Majors, especially with Starling Marte occupying that spot at least through 2018, when he may move back to center (pending Austin Meadows' development, see below) if the Pirates don’t resign McCutchen. Luckily, Ramirez's speed would be an asset in the spacious left field at PNC Park.
So where does this leave Ramirez in the passel of Pirate outfielders? We should probably pump the brakes a little on expectations, as Ramirez has never seen action above high-A. Clint Hurdle hilariously said today that, when it comes to prospect performance, “I’m a crockpot. People have a tendency to be microwaves.” Based on his less-than-slim figure, I’m sure Clint Hurdle thinks about crockpots a lot more than the average person, but he has a point. Spring Training stats are Spring Training stats; a year ago, everyone though Jung-Ho Kang was a mistake for the Pirates after hitting only .200 in Spring Training with a 38% strikeout rate. Now he’s on the cover of the Korean version of MLB: The Show 16 and was influential enough to get the “Kang Rule” passed to protect middle infielders, in addition to being a fan favorite among the same yinzers who questioned him during the spring. These types of things go both ways, though; a promising spring for Ramirez doesn’t forecast future success at higher levels of play, but it doesn’t preclude it, either.
Raking against major league and AAA pitching is a good sign for Ramirez regardless of where he does from here, and he’ll definitely be on the radar of a lot of people as his season starts, most likely in AA Altoona. It’s possible the Pirates would float him as a trade candidate mid-season; in addition to the outfielders on the parent club (of whom, admittedly, there are only three legitimate outfielders, albeit three very good ones), the Pirates have a number of good outfielders in the minors. They converted Josh Bell to first, but he could presumably move back to the outfield if necessary, and they also have Willy Garcia and Austin Meadows with whom Ramirez will ultimately be competing for playing time. However, while Meadows is the heir apparent to replace Andrew McCutchen in 2018 (assuming Bob Nutting doesn’t miraculously find extra money in his pocket to resign Cutch), it’s unclear how Ramirez would fit into the outfield, as Polanco and Marte are locked up through 2020 and 2021, respectively. Ramirez will likely be available well before that if his progression through the minors continues unimpeded. Perhaps this is the year that the Pirates finally put their farm system to work and give up a few prospects in return for Major League talent, and Ramirez seems like a candidate in such a deal, given the outfield talent they have in the minors. If Ramirez’s stock continues to rise throughout the season, though, I would guess it would be less and less likely that the Pirates trade him, as outfield depth is important to have if you need to replace some of the production from guys like McCutchen and Marte at some point if (god forbid) they miss any significant time due to injuries.
Overall, what we’re seeing here are a few good games from a guy who has produced in the minors in the past. Maybe this is the coming out party for someone who’s going to be ready to play in the majors in 2017, or maybe this is simply a blip in the news from some meaningless Spring Training games and we’ll completely forget about Harold Ramirez within a month. I hope it’s the former, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he progresses in the coming season.