Mulling a Middle Move
At shortstop, if you have to fill in, you're in trouble most of the time. The Defensive Spectrum is a necessary concept to explain why that is true because there is nobody drifting into the shortstop position because he failed at somewhere else.
-- Bill James in an interview with Rich Lederer
Despite scouts and signings calling for change, the minors' two best shortstop prospects have remained at their position this season. Playing on opposite ends of the East Coast, Hanley Ramirez and Joel Guzman are sinking their teeth into Double-A after what were breakout seasons for both in 2004.
Both signed from the Dominican as 16-year-olds, and Guzman immediately became well-known signing a record-setting contract. His $2.25 million bonus broke the mark previously set by Miguel Cabrera, and put a lot of pressure on the kid. Los Angeles was touting his five-tool talents, from his fast 60-times to his extraordinary pop in his bat. Despite signing in early July of 2001, the Dodgers left Guzman's professional debut until the following season.
Boston decided to do the same with their Dominican star, but having signed a year earlier left 2001 as Hanley's debut. The Red Sox stayed conservative with Hanley, leaving him near home playing in the Dominican Summer League. Ramirez finished having been named the Player of the Year, following a season in which he hit .345/.395/.533. Fifteen walks, thirteen steals and 25 extra-base hits in 197 at-bats was a sign of things to come for Ramirez.
The less-than-conservative Dodgers allowed their star to skip the Dominican League, starting him in the Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old that summer. Ramirez was making his American debut that same season at the age of eighteen, and his star outshone that of Guzman. Boston left their switch-hitting talent in the GCL for most of the summer, where he would hit .341/.402/.555 and be named a league All-Star. Guzman hit just .212 with just two doubles in 33 at-bats before the Dodgers promoted him a year after being signed to the Pioneer League.
In their second league's that summer, again it was Hanley Ramirez that was best thought of. Ramirez took the rise to Lowell of the NYPL well, hitting .371/.400/.536. This was the first time that Hanley (who entered the league with a BB/K of 31/37 in 361 AB) struggled with plate discipline, walking just four times in 97 at-bats. This did not stop the Red Sox from naming Hanley their top position player from the Spinners. Los Angeles wished the same had been true for Guzman, who was very unprepared for the Pioneer League. Guzman hit .252/.331/.391, striking out in excess of 35% of hit at-bats.
Over the winter separating 2002 and 2003, Hanley Ramirez gave the Red Sox the first flaw to his resume. Boston sent their top prospect home during the Instructional League after the teenager cussed out an assistant trainer. This did not stop Red Sox brass from downplaying popular comparisons to Alfonso Soriano, and having international scouting director Louie Eljaua throw out Edgar Renteria's name.
Unfortunately, Ramirez continued to worry evaluators with maturity issues when making his full-season debut with Augusta in 2003. After off to a slow start in mid-May, Ramirez was sent to extended spring training (missing eight games) after making an "inappropriate gesture" towards a fan. Less than a month later Ramirez suffered a sprained shoulder during a brawl in which one newspaper reported Ramirez nearly went into the stands with a bat. While the Red Sox downplayed this incident, there was no question Hanley had a ways to go.
For the second straight season, Guzman joined Ramirez in 2003 in the South Atlantic League. While Hanley's summer was tainted with the maturity problems, Guzman continued to not have success and still get promoted. The Dodgers moved Joel to Vero Beach mid-summer despite Guzman hitting just .235/.263/.406 and having major issues with plate discipline. At this point in his young career, Guzman had 32 walks and 124 strikeouts in 401 walks. There was no significant change in Joel's numbers as he moved to the FSL, with a .650 OPS and very limited power. At the end of the 2003 season, Guzman had a frame too big for playing up the middle, and a .242 career average too small for the corners.
Doubts also started to cloud Ramirez' scouting report after 2003, where his play and his head gave him competition for the Red Sox top prospect slot. Hanley had just a .730 OPS in the South Atlantic League, committing more errors (36) than walks (32) in 111 games. Still, 36 steals and just one less extra-base hit gave Hanley Baseball America's top spot among Boston players. Boston promised their star would be a good citizen going forward, and comparisons to Edgar Renteria stayed despite his struggles.
In 2004, good things started to happen to the two shortstops that had been hyped for three years. Starting in the Florida State League, things began to click for the players. Guzman hit .307/.349/.550 in 87 games at Vero Beach, combatting selectivity problems with 44 extra-base hits in 329 at-bats. Ramirez played in 62 FSL games, hitting .310/.364/.389 with twelve steals and just 13 extra-base hits before a promotion.
Good things continued upon promotion to AA, as Guzman's numbers were just impacted by the .027 point loss on his batting average. He still hit more than 20 extra-base hits in less than 200 at-bats, and began to walk more often. Ramirez increased his plate discipline minimally, but showed improvements in his career stolen base (80%) and Isolated Power (.202) rates. Hanley actually bested Guzman's AA OPS numbers, but his power problems in FSL allowed Joel to jump Ramirez for the first time in prospect status.
Going forward, it remains to be seen whether these two players will move from their shortstop positions. Guzman's height, 78 inches tall, has led many scouts to question whether he will be able to stay up the middle. His defense has not suffered right now, but a move from Cesar Izturis to Guzman would likely be a serious reduction in range. A move to the hot corner or the outfield could be in order. Hanley might move to the outfield as well, possibly replacing Johnny Damon in center, after the Red Sox signed Edgar Renteria this past winter. The Red Sox have moved Dustin Pedroia to second and left Ramirez at short for the time being, leaving many to wonder if Hanley is simply the best trade bait available on the market.
Currently, Ramirez is continuing to get the best of AA, leading the Eastern League with five triples. Ramirez has yet to hit a home run, but the triples, stolen bases, discipline and small number of errors has made Hanley's start a good one. Guzman has not started the season so well, striking out thirteen times in his first 39 at-bats.
Right now, it looks like Hanley might be in the lead for the top spot, though the two remain neck and neck. A move to third for Guzman and to center for Hanley look to be the two most likely possibilities, but expect both to be left at short for as long as possible.