Erasmo Ramirez to Tampa in Minimally Surprising Trade
You always wanted to blame a physical injury. Something small enough to go undiagnosed, but that changed his mechanics somehow. He’d always shown good control, but he was putting up average-to-mediocre walk numbers. Nothing looked wrong with the velocity, and every so often, a perfectly disguised change up would flutter in and befuddle some talented hitter. It – the combination of stuff, approach, confidence – was always on the verge of returning. After a few years of this, it’s someone else’s turn to wait and wonder if “it” was ever really there, and if it is ever coming back.
The above could apply to either Erasmo Ramirez or Mike Montgomery, two pitchers who’ve frustrated fans with promise, development and then years of stagnation. Tonight, the M’s have traded Ramirez to the Rays in exchange for the LHP Montgomery. Ramirez will get a chance to start for the decimated Rays while Montgomery figures to transition to the bullpen, first in Tacoma and later, hopefully, in Seattle.
Erasmo Ramirez was the ultimate underdog story – a kid from a small town in Nicaragua whose first pitching coach was his grandmother, and who bumped into a tourist who set him on a path to a boarding school in a neighboring country. Always undersized, he was doubted at every step, but who kept getting better until he couldn’t be kept down anymore. He first drew attention in M’s blog-land for his absurd K:BB ratio in the Venezuelan league in 2009. That earned him a trip to the US, and an aggressive promotion to Clinton, where the diminutive righty put together a great statistical year. People looked at his lack of pedigree, his stature, and so-so velocity and assumed his change-of-speed game would get crushed in the high minors – all this despite the fact that he continued to add velo along the way.
In 2011, his results were mixed enough that the debate just intensified. The walk rate was great, but high-minors hitters punished strikes much more, and he was getting hit hard. A trip to Tacoma didn’t solve those issues, but saw him touch 95 on the gun. Instead of the no-stuff, right-handed Nicaraguan Jamie Moyer, we had something both more common and more intriguing: a very young prospect who threw hard and had another great pitch, but who struggled when exposed to elite hitters in the PCL. In 2012, Ramirez adjusted. After a brilliant spring, he made the opening day roster as the long reliever, and showed flashes of promise admixed with a selection of mistake pitches. After some additional seasoning in Tacoma to stretch him out, Erasmo returned and looked like a sure-fire #3 starter: his control was back where it was in Clinton, and his change-up was one of the better swing-and-miss pitches in the league. On June 25th, in his 3rd big league start, Ramirez made a statement with a brilliant 10K, 1R start against Oakland. Because Mariners, he lost it 1-0 to his American, lefty doppelganger Tommy Milone, but he’d proven his game *could* work in the bigs. He followed it up with several solid starts, and while he picked up a nagging injury, he looked like a key part of the M’s rotation for years to come.
Mike Montgomery was a first round pick out of HS, and took to the pro game immediately. After laying waste to the low minors, the lefty with a big fastball and devastating change seemed like a #1 starter for the perpetually rebuilding Royals. He was their #1 prospect in 2010, and one of the top guys on their 2011 list – the one that was infamously and with horror-movie-like-foreshadowing called the best collection of propsects ever assembled. It’s easy to forget how ill-fated that collection seemed a few years ago, before Moustakas and Hosmer underproduced for a pennant winner and not just for another so-so 90-loss team. LHP Jake Lamb retired for a while, then came back. Danny Duffy kept getting hurt. Mike Moustakas has essentially been a poor-man’s Dustin Ackley. Jake Odorizzi seemingly hit a wall in AAA. And then there was Mike Montgomery.
Through 2010, Montgomery was a dominant force – combining low walk rates with solid K rates and stuff that seemed extremely difficult to square up. He paired a fastball at 92-95 with a change-up at 84 and a developing curve that could help him dominate lefties. He started the 2011 campaign in AAA Omaha, seemingly on the brink of a call-up. Instead, he tanked. His walk rate crept up over 3 per 9. His strikeouts dropped, while his hits allowed climbed. He looked like the same pitcher, but, depending on who saw him, he either lacked confidence, the right approach or a decent third pitch.
In what was increasingly looking like a make or break 2012, Montgomery regressed further, culminating in a demotion to AA, where his numbers cratered. That off-season, he was a change-of-scenery throw in to the Wil Myers for James Shields mega-deal. It seemed easy to see him rebounding with Tampa, but while Jake Odorizzi fashioned himself into a better-than-average starter, Montgomery was merely so-so for AAA Durham. He wasn’t getting blown off the mound the way he had been in 2012, but the K:BB ratio was as bad as it had ever been. Whatever the reason, Montgomery just wasn’t the same guy any more. He improved a bit last year with Durham, trimming his walk rate and showing some signs of an ability to induce weak contact, but he still didn’t look like a big league starter. The Rays injury woes leave them in desperate need of a starter, but they’d toyed with moving him to the pen and seeing if they could turn him into a lights-out reliever the way they had with another disappointing uber-prospect, Wade Davis (who, coincidentally, moved to Kansas City in the trade that brought Montgomery to Tampa). After Alex Cobb went down, though, the Rays need for someone to man the back of the rotation outweighed their desire to see what Montgomery could become.
The M’s simply couldn’t keep Erasmo Ramirez. We’ve all known it since camp kicked off. Out of options, but on a team with at least five better starters, Erasmo’s spring (and his stellar VWL season this winter) was an extended audition for someone else. It’s fitting, in a way, that he heads to Tampa in exchange for Montgomery. At this point, Ramirez seems like a smart play for a team looking for a bit of upside and the need to get something like replacement-level-or-better performance. The M’s have no need for that, so exchange Ramirez for a lottery ticket – a guy with tons of unrealized talent, who could potentially play a role in the bullpen once he fully commits to the role in Tacoma. Everyone’s stuff is better in short stints, but for certain players, the change in role unlocks something more. Wade Davis was a starter who couldn’t miss bats, until he became a dominant reliever. I’m not saying Montgomery will follow in Davis’ footsteps, but while the M’s picked up a pitcher who’s disappointed for four solid years, he’s a hell of a lot more talented than the average waiver claim.
Erasmo’s move to the AL East doesn’t look great on paper; home runs have hurt his results for years now, and he’s leaving the spacious, marine-layered parks of the West coast for Toronto, new Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards. And Mike Montgomery’s an odd-looking lefty specialist given his change-up – he’s actually got a better FIP against righties than lefties over the last four years. This isn’t a blockbuster, and we may never look back on this trade at all, let alone ruefully. But the M’s bargaining position here was compromised by the fact that everyone knew Ramirez had to go. If they held out for more in trade, teams could wait the M’s out and snatch Erasmo on waivers. For a variety of reasons, not the least because Erasmo already WAS a successful big leaguer for a few months, I think it’s much more likely that the Rays get some positive WAR out of this deal than the M’s. However, given the circumstances, that’s not the way to evaluate this trade. The M’s will – and should – accept a hell of a lot more variance, more uncertainty, in the hopes of unlocking Montgomery’s talent. Given that Erasmo was clearly behind Roenis Elias and perhaps even Jordan Pries in SP-depth-in-AAA, his superior ZiPS projection meant less to the M’s than any other team.
I’ll close by saying that I’ve always been an Erasmo-Optimist, and that the team’s tough love approach to his struggles produced shockingly little in the way of growth, adjustment or improvement. I always thought the M’s would fritter away a perfectly solid, cost-controlled starter, and I worried that they’d reach for one of Zduriencik’s all-tools, no-results guys like Mark Rogers last year. Now that they have, I’m OK with it. What’s changed isn’t my assessment of Ramirez (ok, actually, that’s a bit of it) or my blood-alcohol level. It’s the team Ramirez was a part of. The M’s got a lot better a lot quicker, and their starting pitching got much, much better than any of us would’ve expected. Just because you have depth doesn’t mean you give it away for pennies on the dollar, but the M’s aren’t in a position to wait around and see if Erasmo can stop giving up dingers anymore. That’s not a slam on Erasmo, really, it’s a testament to a rotation that gelled after Ramirez blew his last shot. I wish him well, and probably *still* overrate the odds he can pull off an Odorizzi-like improvement, but good on the M’s for getting something interesting for him.