The Hanley Ramirez question: Dodgers' options at third base & shortstop

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

In the second and final part of his series, Cliff Corcoran examines where to play Hanley Ramirez by looking at the Dodgers' other options at third base and shortstop.

On Tuesday I explored the question of whether or not Hanley Ramirez should play shortstop or third base for the Dodgers in 2013 by looking at the quality of Ramirez’s defense at those two positions. My conclusion was that, given the fact that Ramirez is playing shortstop in winter ball, unless he gets a lot of exposure at third base during the World Baseball Classic and has a sharper learning curve at the position than he displayed in 2012, he’ll do just as much harm at the hot corner as at shortstop. In effect, when you limit the discussion to Ramirez himself, it doesn’t matter where he plays. He’s going to be close to a win below average in the field at either position.

As a result, the discussion of where Ramirez should play has more to do with the Dodgers non-Hanley options on the left side of the infield. The position Ramirez should play is the one their second-best third baseman or shortstop doesn’t. So, who is that player?

Aside from Ramirez, the Dodgers have seven men on their 40-man roster who have major league experience at third base or shortstop. The newly acquired Skip Schumaker is not among that number; his only experience on the left side of the infield being six games at third base in Double-A in 2004. None of these men are de facto starters in the major leagues. Most of them are poor hitters. Some of them are good fielders. Here’s a look at the seven.

Elian Herrera
Bats: Both2013 playing age: 28
Experience at SS: three innings in the majors, 66 games in the minors
Experience at 3B: 117 2/3 innings in the majors, 60 games in the minors
Typical batting line: .285/.365/.397 in the minors, .251/.340/.332 in 214 PA in the majors

Utility man Herrera was primarily a second baseman and outfielder in the minors and spent most of his rookie year in the majors last year in the outfield as well. That alone likely takes him out of the running for a significant chunk of the playing time on the left side of the infield.

Juan Uribe
Bats: Right
2013 playing age: 33
Experience at SS: 7,753 1/3 innings, last significant exposure in 2010
Experience at 3B: 1,977 1/3 innings, 94 starts there in last two years with Dodgers
Typical batting line: .199/.262/.289 in 474 PA last two years, .256/.300/.431 career prior to that

Once a slick fielder with 20-home-run power, Uribe has been a regular for two World Series winners, playing shortstop for the 2005 White Sox and third base for the 2010 Giants, but he’s no longer an above-average defensive shortstop, and he hasn’t hit a lick since signing a three-year, $21 million contract with the Dodgers prior to the 2011 season. The sudden death of Uribe’s bat seems to be related to a pair of injuries to his left hand and wrist. He was hitting a fairly typical .247/.297/.409 when he was hit on the left hand by a pitch on May 4, 2011, but though he didn’t miss a game due to the injury, from that point forward he hit just .182/.245/.233 with one home run before a sports hernia ended his season in late July. This past May, during a season in which he hit just .191/.258/.284 with two home runs, he was diagnosed with arthritis in his left wrist. Despite returning from the disabled list on June 11 and remaining on the active roster for the remainder of the season, he made just one start after July 22. The Juan Uribe the Dodgers signed would be their best option at third base in 2013, but it’s very likely that player doesn’t exist anymore.

Justin Sellers
Bats: Right
2013 playing age: 27
Experience at SS: 225 1/3 innings in the majors, 548 games in the minors
Experience at 3B: 63 1/3 innings in the majors, 24 games in the minors
Typical batting line: .268/.356/.391 in the minors, .204/.283/.323 in 189 PA in the majors

Sellers has some solid on-base skills and his fielding was well regarded on his way through the minors, but the power in that minor league line was largely a product of a friendly hitting environment in Triple-A Albuquerque specifically and the Pacific Coast League in general. Sellers, whom the Dodgers list at 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, hit 28 home runs in 674 PA with Albuquerque, but has collected just 19 in another 2,525 PA at all other levels. Seller’s aggregate line in those 2,525 PA was .261/.348/.356. If he could do that in the majors and play sparkling defense at shortstop, where the average major leaguer hit .257/.310/.378 in 2012, he might hold some value, but he has been overmatched at the plate in his admittedly limited major league opportunities, will turn 27 in February, and is coming off back surgery which could have negative impact on his fielding.

Dee Gordon
Bats: Left
2013 playing age: 25
Experience at SS: 1,097 2/3 innings
Experience at 3B: none, has only played shortstop as a professional
Typical batting line: .302/.354/.387 in the minors, .260/.299/.315 in the majors

Cover up the batting averages and there’s not much difference between Gordon’s career lines in the minor and major leagues and Sellers’. Gordon adds tremendous speed, good for 56 steals in 143 major league games (at a 77 percent success rate with just three of those steals coming in games he didn’t start), but despite his athleticism he has proven to be an erratic fielder, grading out as below average in both of his major league seasons according to all four* of the defensive metrics I cited with regard to Ramirez. Uncover those batting averages and you see that Gordon’s production is far more dependent on balls falling for singles than Sellers’. Gordon’s showed a consistent ability to hit for high averages in the minors and in his first major league exposure (he hit .304 in 233 plate appearances as a rookie in 2011), but that dependence on batting average also means he’s an offensive black hole when the hits don’t fall, as was the case in 2012 (.228/.290/.281).

Gordon was a well-regarded prospect, in part because he’s an impressive athlete who came to the game late despite being the son of a former major leaguer (pitcher Tom Gordon). That all suggested a player with great potential for improvement, but he was rushed through the minors rather than being allowed to develop his skills and seems to have stagnated. It may be that he was never going to be more than the player he is—sub-par in the field, sub-Juan Pierre at the plate, and a prolific but not high-percentage basestealer -- but whatever his chances of blossoming into a legitimate major league shortstop may have been, they seem to be withering.

*Ultimate Zone Rating, Fielding Runs Above Average, Total Zone, The Fielding Bible’s plus/minus (2011 only on that last)

Nick Punto
Bats: Both
2013 playing age: 35
Experience at SS: 2,138 1/3 innings, last significant exposure in 2010
Experience at 3B: 2,325 2/3 innings, the position he has played most in the majors
Typical batting line: .237/.336/.309 last four years, .247/.325/.325 career

Punto is a terrible hitter. He will take a walk, but he can’t hit for average, has no power, and his fairly even splits reveal that there’s no platoon potential in his ability to switch-hit. He also just turned 35 and no longer steals bases. Still, he’s a darn good fielder. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, but there are two more challengers to the throne remaining.

Jerry Hairston Jr.
Bats: Right
2013 playing age: 37
Experience at SS: 1,036 1/3 innings, last significant exposure in 2010
Experience at 3B: 1,004 2/3 innings, incl. 23 starts in 2012
Typical batting line: .257/.322/.378 last four years, .259/.327/.372 career

Hairston has built a 15-year major league career out of being the sort of utility man who can keep a team from falling below replacement level at most of the skill positions. Since losing an early-career battle over the Orioles second base job to Brian Roberts, he has started more than 100 games at four different positions (shortstop, third base, second base, and center field), playing roughly average defense at each while hitting like a league-average middle infielder. His bat can get hot on occasion, and over the last two seasons he has consistently out-hit the aggregate lines above, hitting .271/.343/.384 in 643 regular season plate appearances , and .279/.348/.394 in 688 PA if you add in his red-hot performance as the Brewers’ third baseman in the 2011 playoffs. The latter line is roughly equivalent to the production of the average major league third baseman in 2012.

That all sounds pretty good compared to the players above, but Hairston is still prone to injury, will come into the 2013 season off of September surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, will turn 37 in May, and has played in more than 120 games just once in the last ten seasons. At best, the hip injury likely eliminates shortstop from Hairston’s repertoire.

Luis Cruz
Bats: Right
2013 playing age: 29
Experience at SS: 536 2/3 innings in the majors, 910 games in the minors
Experience at 3B: 427 2/3 innings in the majors, 101 games in the minors
Typical batting line: .270/.305/.371 in 465 PA in majors, .280/.310/.441 in 1,948 PA at Triple-A

With the six men above as his competition, it’s no wonder the Dodgers plan to give Cruz, a 28-year-old minor league journeyman with his sixth organization the first shot at a starting job in 2013. Cruz, who was signed by the Red Sox in 2000 and hit .221/.275/.260 in 169 major league plate appearances with the Pirates and Brewers from 2008 to 2010, was the Dodgers’ starting shortstop last July and their starting third baseman in August and September. During those three months, the Mexican-born Cruz emerged as something of a clutch-hitting folk hero, hitting .325/.354/.455 with runners in scoring position and .351/.383/.474 in "late and close" situations (in 82 and 61 overlapping plate appearances, respectively). Overall, he hit .297/.322/.431 in 296 plate appearances with the Dodgers, all but six of them coming in games he started.

That last line is close enough to his career rates at Triple-A that it seems within the realm of possibility for Cruz to repeat it, though I suspect his aggregate major league line above is the best guess as to what to expect from his bat in the coming season. Given that Cruz is an above-average fielder at both third base and shortstop, the latter being his natural position, that would seem to trump Punto, but I’m not convinced it’s enough to put him past Hairston, at least not at the hot corner.

Taking all of the above into account, along with Hanley Ramirez’s well-established shortcomings at shortstop, it would seem that the best arrangement for the left-side of the Dodgers’ infield would be to play Ramirez at third base and Cruz at shortstop with the expectation of above-average defense and league-average offense from Cruz (again, the average major league shortstop hit .257/.310/.378 in 2012) and the potential for improvement in the field from Ramirez. That arrangement would make Punto the back-up shortstop, Hairston a pinch-hitter, and send Gordon and Sellers back to Triple-A for seasoning.

If Ramirez remains at shortstop, however, as it seems he will, I’d make third base Hairston’s job to lose, as his well-established bat and solid defense seem like a better bet than relying on Cruz’s short résumé, and Cruz would be the ideal backup for both positions, one who could get his fair share of playing time due to Hairston’s healing hip and overall fragility. Whatever the Dodgers do, however, they won’t be able to hide Ramirez’s glove, and they won’t get much more than league-average value, if that, out of the other position on the left side of the infield.

Cliff Corcoran is one of SBN’s Designated Columnists. His work also appears at SI.com. Follow him at @cliffcorcoran.

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