When I said yesterday that Hanley Ramirez may be the most irreplaceable player on this team, I really meant that. You can (and, as we’ve seen, already have) deal with losing Matt Kemp or Carl Crawford for some time because there’s great depth in the outfield. You can live without players like Mark Ellis or Juan Uribe, because neither are really that great and there’s a ton of utility guys floating around here. You can’t really ever replace Clayton Kershaw, I suppose, but at least that’s only one out of every five games.
But Ramirez is different because we’ve already seen what happens when he’s not available, and it’s not pretty. They tried Justin Sellers when Ramirez missed the start of the season with an injured thumb, and they got a line of .188/.263/.246 with mediocre defense. They tried Dee Gordon when Ramirez hurt his hamstring shortly after returning, and for that they got a line of .175/.278/.254 with terrible defense. They’ll probably have Nick Punto in the lineup tonight in St. Louis, but he’s hitting all of .213/.276/.275 since May 1 and isn’t someone you can count on on a daily basis.
Considering how great Ramirez has been, there might not be a larger dropoff in the game from a starter to a backup. No, really — look at the Dodger shortstops on FanGraphs. Ramirez has a massive .447 wOBA. Punto lags behind at .280, and Gordon, Sellers, and long-gone Luis Cruz are far behind that. This team has either “amazing” or “atrocious” at shortstop. There just isn’t a middle-ground option there.
So now we wait for updates on Ramirez’ shoulder injury, and we try not to read Dylan Hernandez’ report that notes “high-ranking club officials said they were bracing themselves for the worst.” We know that Gordon didn’t play last night in Fresno for the Isotopes — Elian Herrera, Alex Castellanos, and Sellers all did — and we start to think about what the options might be here if and when Ramirez is unavailable for a third time.
Due to the configuration of the roster, a move is almost an absolute necessity unless Ramirez is magically going to be able to play in St. Louis. Other than Punto, there’s really not anyone on the active roster who’s even an option to play shortstop, and while I know that both Jerry Hairston & Uribe have past experience there, that was a long time ago. Besides, since Scott Van Slyke was optioned out for Stephen Fife yesterday, the team is already carrying 13 pitchers. That means that they really can’t handle having Ramirez eating up a roster spot for a few days while they try to get him healthy, because that many pitchers means that Don Mattingly has a short bench even if everyone can go.
So if you’re making a move internally, it has to be Gordon or Sellers, and the team appears to have selected Gordon based on the semi-scientific evidence of “he didn’t play last night”. He’s coming off a hot July for the Isotopes (.356/.455/.436, though let’s not ignore the .424 BABIP) while Sellers struggled (.229/.302/.386), so fine. This is a team that really doesn’t have much speed off the bench, so I don’t hate the idea of Gordon being available to run for Adrian Gonzalez or Andre Ethier or whomever in the late innings.
The only real issue there is that he wouldn’t just be a pinch-runner, he’d be needed at shortstop since Punto can’t go everyday, and there’s little indication that the defense has really improved from the mess we’ve seen. He’s got 17 errors in 65 games so far this year (though zero in 15 appearances at second base), and this scouting report from Baseball Hot Corner from just four days ago doesn’t really give you confidence:
Gordon’s defense was also shaky tonight, having committed a throwing error in the first inning which lead to the River Cats scoring their first run. In the 4th inning, he ranged to his left for a grounder up the middle, going down to a slide to field the ball and ended up booted in into short right-center. No error was given on the play, but if he would have drives glove first, he may have been able to field the ball cleanly and throw the batter out at first. A tough play no doubt, but he could have fielded the ball better. He did have one redeeming play in the bottom of the 8th inning when he made a nice play on a ball hit to the third/short gap. Gordon chased it down in the gap and made a crisp throw to first to get the batter out. But overall, his performance tonight was under-whelming.
For a team that’s succeeded lately really due much more to great pitching than people think, putting such a lousy defender at the most important defensive position doesn’t seem wonderful. (Yes, I see the irony here, because we said that about Ramirez as well; he did end up being better than expected. Which isn’t to say good, of course.)
Still, options are limited, and if it’s for a week or two or three, you probably suck it up and try to get by with Gordon and Punto. But if it’s more? If it turns out this is something serious that costs Ramirez a month or — lord help us — the remainder of the season? Gordon / Punto does not seem like a combo that you take into October, and that means we get into the scary territory of over-priced waiver deals for underperforming veterans like Jimmy Rollins or Alexei Ramirez or someone similar.
That’s getting ahead of ourselves, however, because we still don’t know what’s going to come of Ramirez’ injury. Hopefully, we’re talking about an absence of days, not weeks, though it sure didn’t look great when he came out of the stands doubled over in obvious pain. My guess? Gordon gets activated tonight, and either Ramirez goes to the disabled list or Carlos Marmol or Chris Withrow finds his way off the pitching staff. No matter what the details are, this team needs Ramirez to be okay. Even seeing how great things have gone over the last six weeks, I’m not sure they can win without him.