Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Rays Sign Ramon Ramirez and Evan Frey, Release Will Inman
By Robbie Knopf
When acquiring players, even ones who will be fillers in their minor league system, the Rays place an emphasis on upside. They need to find players who will perform well enough to keep their affiliates afloat, but they would rather sign a player with a higher probability to collapse but also a larger chance to break out than a dependable player but one with limited potential. The risk in that strategy is that you get on a bad run and several consecutive players don’t work out, limiting your depth at the upper levels when injuries strike. The advantage, though, is that every player you’re acquiring has a chance to find his groove and crack your roster, and if you sign enough players, a few of them will have to work out by chance alone. On July 1st, the Rays cut ties with one of their upside plays that turned out to be a total disaster, right-hander Will Inman. But at the same time, they agreed to terms with fellow right-hander Ramon Ramirez and outfielder Evan Frey, two players with the ability to help as soon of this season with a little bit of luck.
Inman, 26, is a the classic case of a player with great stuff but simply no idea where it’s going. A low-90’s fastball, plus changeup, and decent breaking ball meant nothing as Inman managed just a 6.47 ERA in 21 appearances for the Triple-A Durham Bulls, striking out 25 while walking 27 in 32 innings pitched. Inman was a former top prospect in the Brewers and Padres organizations, but a series of arm injuries have taken his career completely off the rails. Good luck to Inman wherever he ends up next, but after even the Rays’ renowned pitching coordinators couldn’t help him, you have to wonder whether this is the beginning of the end for his career.
Every team you hear a story like Inman, it has to make you sad. But when you’re a team like the Rays bringing in player after player who fit a similar profile, you just have to avert your eyes and move on. Replacing Inman in the Durham bullpen is Ramon Ramirez, and he was not just a top prospect but a reliever who was extremely effective in the major leagues for four years. From 2008 to 2011, Ramirez made over 65 appearances with an ERA below 3.00 each season, managing a 2.77 ERA, a 7.5 K/9, a 3.7 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 276 appearances and 279.1 innings pitched overall. Using primarily a mid-90’s fastball and a hard slider in the high-80’s ,Ramirez was death on right-handed hitters over that span, holding them to .192/.275/.293 line, and he utilized a solid high-80’s changeup to keep lefties to a respectable .258/.335/.384 line as well. The last two seasons, though, have not treated him nearly as kindly. Ramirez dipped to just a 4.24 ERA and a 52-35 strikeout to walk ratio in 63.2 innings pitched with the Mets in 2012, leading him to sign with the Giants as a minor league free agent this past offseason. Ramirez pitched well in 20 relief appearances at Triple-A Fresno to book his ticket back to the team with whom he won a World Series ring in 2010, but Ramirez got destroyed in 5 relief appearances, managing just a 11.12 ERA with no strikeouts and 5 walks in 5.2 relief appearances to earn his release before the Rays scooped him up.
What are the Rays hoping to do with Ramirez? He’s only 31 years old with a strong big league track record, but it seems like he has completely fallen off a cliff the past two years. Why do the Rays think that that Ramirez is worth saving? The answer becomes clear when you look at Ramirez’s Pitch F/X data from Brooks Baseball. For his career, Ramirez’s fastball has averaged 93.27 MPH, often bumping 94-95 MPH, and his slider came in at 88.00 MPH while his changeup was at 88.31 MPH. With such a small velocity difference, his slider almost acted like a cutter, but that was fine because it featured sharp late break and plenty of swings-and-misses. The changeup, though, was a different story. It was never that great of a pitch because a changeup is supposed to be 7-10 MPH off from the fastball and for Ramirez the difference was more like 5 MPH, which was why he never was that great against lefty batters. In 2012, though, he went from mediocre to disastrous as lefties hit to a .273/.380/.409 line against him. The reason was that his fastball velocity had dipped to 91.24 MPH but his changeup stayed firm at 86.77 MPH. A mid-90’s fastball in the front of the hitters’ mind every pitch can do wonders for your entire arsenal and make flaws like sub-par changeup separation less noticeable. When the fastball drops into the 90-91 range, suddenly that is no longer true.
With Ramirez, the Rays’ goal is going to be to adjust his arsenal so he can survive with a lower-velocity fastball. In 2013 with the Giants, his fastball averaged 92.01 MPH with his slider at 87.14 MPH and his changeup at 86.44 MPH. Look for the Rays to work on both secondary pitches and especially the changeup. It’s common knowledge that teaching the changeup is a forte of the Rays organization, and if they could get Ramirez to throw a softer change, it could not only help him against lefties but even emerge as a third weapon against righties since his trademark hard slider has lost some effectiveness because of his loss of fastball velocity. Maybe Ramirez never takes to the changeup and he’s going to be stuck as a middling reliever whose best-case scenario the rest of his career is his 2012 season with the Mets. But there’s always the possibility that Ramirez can make this adjustment and go right back to being one of the best relievers in baseball, and the Rays are more than willing to take the chance with so little risk involved on a minor league deal. The Rays know what they’re getting with Ramirez and know what they have to do to revitalize his career, and let’s see if they can make it happen.
If there’s one issue with the incomprehensible greatness that is Sam Fuld, it’s injuries. He’s been healthy the start of the season, but a wrist injury sidelined him until late July in 2012 and hamstring issues bothered him in September in 2012 and in spring training this year. What will the Rays do the next time Fuld goes down and the role of extra outfielder with high energy and ridiculous defense becomes up for grabs? Your knee-jerk reaction would have to be that the Rays would call up a player like Brandon Guyer, but why let Guyer, who might hit enough to be a starting outfielder at some point, rot away on the bench? That’s where Evan Frey comes in.
Frey, 26, is the closest thing you’re going to find to a Sam Fuld doppelganger. He’s 6’0″, 175 compared to Fuld’s 5’10”, 175, but his game is so similar it’s ridiculous. Frey is a lefty swinger with little power but great speed and excellent plate discipline. He’s a great bunter and beats out plenty of groundballs for hits thanks to great hustle. Frey is a pesky hitter who can hold his own against pitchers from both sides (although he has struggled against lefties this season) and wreck havoc when he’s on the basepaths. And then there is the matter of Frey’s defense. Frey is solid in centerfield with a pretty good arm, but he especially stands out for his excellent instincts and knack for the highlight-reel play from any outfield position. We can’t say for sure that Frey is a Fuld-esque player because Fuld has proven himself in the major leagues while Frey has not, but he’s a player who could emerge as an option for the Rays’ 4th or 5th outfielder as soon as this season. Frey was signed because the Durham Bulls’ centerfielder, Rich Thompson, went down with a broken foot. Worst-case scenario, he simply takes Thompson’s place, but there’s a chance that he could be a player who gives the Rays some big league value by the time the season ends.