The Time To Extend Hanley Ramirez Is Now

The issue of Hanley Ramirez‘s contract status entering the 2014 season has been speculated on for a while now. Going back to November, it was reported that the two parties were engaged in talks, and that was reiterated in a late-January report.

Just the other day, his contract status was raised once again, with Hanley stating that he’d like to remain a Dodger for life.

In the clubhouse a day before position players were scheduled to report for spring training, Hanley Ramirez said Wednesday he wanted to be “a Dodger for life.”

But Ramirez otherwise declined to talk about his contractual status, saying with a smile, “I’m a baseball player.”

With Clayton Kershaw now locked up, the only main cog left unattended to is Ramirez, who becomes a free agent after the season. And make no mistake, despite Hanley’s performance struggles in previous years and concerns about injuries, he remains an elite talent.

Hanley Going Forward

SystemPABAOBPSLGOPSwOBAWAR
2013336.345.402.6381.040.4425.2
Steamer ’14565.279.349.463.812.3524.3
ZiPS ’14491.276.342.486.828.3573.8
Oliver ’14600.296.358.525.883.3795.7

Hanley put up an amazing line in 2013, and his effectiveness has increased as he’s gotten further away from labrum surgery in 2011. His 2013 line of .345/.402/.638/1.040 and solid defense at short put him on a ~9 WAR full season pace. That performance has meant that even with his horrible 2011, average 2012, and injury-shortened 2013, he’s still projected as a plus regular over a full season by all the systems.

But that’s with the generally conservative projection systems, and I think there’s more reason to believe in his resurgence than doubt it. For starters, there’s his shoulder and his recovery.

Ramirez also credited the Dodgers medical staff with helping him revive his career. Not only did Ramirez recover from a broken thumb and strained hamstring this year, he also gained strength in his surgically repaired left shoulder.

“My body feels good,” he said.

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Hanley Ramirez said he felt more confident than he had in three years when he came off the disabled list at the end of April. Why?

“Because of this,” Ramirez said, gesturing to the three-inch scar on his left shoulder, a souvenir from September 2011 surgery. It took Ramirez that long — 18 months — to feel as if he was back to being himself following the surgery.

We read about this before, especially when discussing Matt Kemp‘s labrum surgery and Adrian Gonzalez‘s similar shoulder issues, but it bears repeating because of the power-sapping, swing-altering nature of that injury.

Still, those quotes could all be meaningless without evidence, and fortunately Hanley has shown us signs of his previous self. From 2007-9, when he was an elite offensive threat, he struck out 15.5% of the time. When he was toiling away from 2011-12, he posted an increased 18.8% strikeout rate, but in 2013 he came back down to that 15.5% rate again. Additionally, the distribution of his batted balls changed for the better. From 2007-9, his fly ball percentage was 41.9%, 36.7%, and 41.5%, respectively. But in 2011, he essentially became a groundball hitter, as he put just 33.2% of batted balls in the air, and, like with everything else, that improved gradually in 2012 to 34.4%. Then, in 2013, he posted a 37.4% FB rate to go along with a career-high 22.0% line drive rate. Furthermore, his batted ball distance in 2013 on fly balls was 303.9 feet and 284.2 feet on line drives. Contrast that with his 2011-12 distances of 281.1 on fly balls and 252.4 on line drives, and there’s clear evidence that not only was he hitting fly balls and line drives more frequently than before, but when he did, he was driving them with more authority.

For a hitter like Hanley, lifting/driving the ball again is a sign that his swing path and strength are returning to pre-shoulder injury levels. So while his .363 BABIP will undoubtedly regress, there’s positive signs that the rest of his resurgence is legitimate. He still projects as a 4 WAR player in the immediate future due to his question marks, but there’s a strong case to be made that he’s much closer to a return to the 6-7 WAR levels he used to achieve on a yearly basis (at least offensively).

So How Much Is He Worth?

This past off-season, 32-year-old Jhonny Peralta got ~$13 million per year over four seasons after a steroid suspension and alternating seasons of effectiveness — he averages 2.4 WAR per 600 PA and Steamer projects him at 2.7 WAR in 2014. Additionally, as we’ve seen with the rising salaries due to the influx of TV money, wins are now going for around $6 million per (arguably $7 million).

So given that, and the fact that Hanley projects as at least as a 4 WAR player going forward, the Dodgers are probably looking at an extension worth something between a five-year, $100 million deal ($20MM AAV) and a six-year, $138 million deal ($23 MM AAV). That might sound like a ridiculous amount of money to commit given his injury issues and struggles prior to last year, but the only reason he might be that CHEAP is because of those unknown factors.

Hanley still has major question marks regarding his health and effectiveness, questions that haven’t adequately been answered since around 2009. Additionally, it’s likely he’ll have to move off shortstop sooner than later. And it’s those problems that are exactly why this is the ideal time for the Dodgers to get an extension done.

So he has multiple question marks and that’s why the team should throw millions at him?

Yeah, pretty much.

I know, I know, why not wait him out, right? Why not let him prove it to the team in 2014 before jumping to lock him up? After all, the Dodgers can afford to wait to re-sign him at whatever price if they want, and that way they get another season to judge his health and productivity. The Dodgers’ payroll gives them that luxury of being able to compete with anybody on the free agent market anyway, right?

All that is true, but the problem is (all jokes aside) the payroll isn’t literally unlimited, and the Masahiro Tanaka signing showed that they’re still thinking about getting deals they like. So if the Dodgers don’t eventually want to be saddled with ALL of the most expensive contracts in baseball history — most of them poor deals from a value standpoint — then they have to be proactive with deals like this at some point. Stan Kasten himself has said he doesn’t want to be reliant on the payroll to do everything in the future.

Perhaps most importantly though, I don’t think there’s a ton to be gained from waiting.

The Alternatives: Worse, Worser, Worserest

Given the desire to have a reasonable payroll someday, one reason there’s risk in waiting out Hanley is because of his potential contract demands. I suggested only a five- or six-year extension mainly because Kasten has said that he doesn’t want to sign guys long-term past the age of 36. That’s relevant because teams nowadays are paying in years on contracts for marquee free agents in addition to dollars. So while the team could maybe get Hanley to ink a five-year deal now, what if he puts up a .320/30 season in 2014? Then he’s going to demand a contract that might literally make him a Dodger for life, and he’ll probably deserve one too. For a team that already has a bunch of players either on the decline or signed well into their decline years, the Dodgers would probably prefer not to add another contract that will be an albatross towards the end of it.

Besides that, the most compelling reason may be that the alternatives … well … sort of suck. Since the Dodgers allegedly want Hanley to eventually move to third in due time, here are the players at both short and third that will be free agents in 2015 (without options):

Shortstops

Asdrubal Cabrera (29)
Rafael Furcal (37)
Alex Gonzalez (37)
J.J. Hardy (32)
Derek Jeter (41)
Jed Lowrie (31)
John McDonald (40)

Third Basemen

Yuniesky Betancourt (33)
Wilson Betemit (33)
Alberto Callaspo (32)
Eric Chavez (37)
Chase Headley (31)
Casey McGehee (32)
Donnie Murphy (32)
Pablo Sandoval (28)
Ty Wigginton (37)
Kevin Youkilis (36)

A bountiful cornucopia of desirable signings.

Seriously though, every player on that list is either older than Hanley or wasn’t nearly as productive in 2013, and none have Hanley’s upside. So even assuming Hanley misses time again in 2014, is there another player you’d prefer to have going in 2015? Not me.

One concern that I had given thought to is the impact on Corey Seager‘s future with the team, which Mike talked about the other day. But for as much as I love Seager, he’s still a prospect, and it’s a hard to endorse prioritizing the future of a player who could be elite over a player who is elite now. Also, as Mike said, the Dodgers are insisting that Seager will be a shortstop going forward (I disagree), so maybe it’s Seager they want to move Hanley to third for? We can only hope.

Conclusion

After considering all those factors, I feel like it’s absolutely in the team’s best interest to lock Hanley up before the season. While it may come with a bit more risk now, it could potentially save a ton of cash and a lot of years, thus sparing the Dodgers a late-30s decline. And unless he has a career-ending injury in 2014, the team will want him back in 2015 and beyond anyway, as he’s the best player the Dodgers (and everybody else) are going to find on the open market. An extension now is thus a sensible risk to take on a player with elite upside, especially for a team that aims to build around a core of star players.