Aramis Ramirez hit his first home run of the 2011 season Wednesday, a wall-scraper in the cold at Wrigley Field. The bomb was his 290th career homer and 214th in a Chicago Cubs uniform. By season’s end, given good health and stability, he will rank sixth on the Cubs’ all-time home-run list:
Chicago Cubs Career Home Run Leaders
- Sammy Sosa- 545
- Ernie Banks– 512
- Billy Williams- 392
- Ron Santo– 337
- Ryne Sandberg– 283
- Gabby Hartnett– 231
- Aramis Ramirez- 214
- Bill Nicholson- 205
- Hank Sauer– 198
- Hack Wilson– 190
On top of the sheer numbers (he is fourth in Cubs history in at-bats per home run), Ramirez also has cache as a tremendous clutch hitter and a symbol of the Cubs’ revival over the past decade. He came over in a lopsided trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates in July 2003, and has been a stud almost without interruption since then. He has hit game-winning home runs against the Brewers, Cardinals, Phillies and White Sox at Wrigley over the past four seasons. He is, little though it means in Chicago and despite struggles in 2007 and 2008, the Cubs’ career leader in postseason homers and RBI. He is a fan favorite, and deservedly so.
At 32 years of age, though, Ramirez is already getting old. He has suffered serious injuries and intermittent struggles each of the past two years. He needed a torrid second half in 2010 to cobble together a .231/.294/.452 line with 25 homers and 83 RBI for the year. Maybe his awful first half was a blip, but then again, maybe not:
Aramis Ramirez, Swinging Strike Percentage by Year
2006: 7.4 %
2007: 7.5 %
2008: 9.0 %
2009: 9.4 %
2010: 10.5 %
That pattern tells me that Ramirez’s bat really slowed down over the past five years, and even if that slowdown were the result of shoulder and thumb injuries, it looks like Ramirez can best be expected to post numbers in the range of the 9.0 % he posted in 2008, his last fully healthy campaign. That’s still a solid figure, but it represents a larger problem: If Ramirez’s bat is slowing down or his plate discipline is deteriorating, it will not manifest itself merely in empty swings. The balls he makes contact with will also fly less distance and at a lower speed. Aramis Ramirez simply will not ever again be a .290-.300 hitter. A better target might be .280, and the Cubs would then be hoping his power hold up enough to make a low-OBP, poor defensive third baseman an above-average contributor.
The team has a $16-million option on Ramirez for 2012. They seem unlikely to pick it up unless Ramirez has a great year in 2011. In the meantime, it may come to be that the team no longer has much use for Ramirez even this season. If they fall from contention, a possibility that looks more like an eventuality in light of the twin losses of starters Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner Wednesday, Ramirez would be a very expensive piece of set-dressing on a team in need of farm-system help. The Cubs could call upon Marquez Smith, a Triple-A 26-year-old, and look to make Josh Vitters (an enigmatic but still skilled 2007 firs-round pick) the starting third baseman next Opening Day.
Where would Ramirez land in this scenario? Philadelphia makes a fair case, if Chase Utley continues to run into brick walls en route to a return from a knee injury. Both Los Angeles teams could use a third baseman with thump if they want to seriously contend down the stretch, and the Cubs should happily eat the money necessary to make the deal feasible. That way, they can get maximum value in return for the once-great, still-talented slugger. Minnesota might come knocking, as could Oakland. The team should have buyers, and it’s important that Hendry sell Ramirez at a good price if the Cubs are to move forward in 2012 and beyond.