What Aramis Ramirez's audition at 1B means for the Pirates

By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 years ago

3B/1B Aramis Ramirez (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

ST. LOUIS — From the day the Pirates brought back Aramis Ramirez to Pittsburgh after 12 years away, it seemed an obvious choice for them to audition him at first base. They finally did so Thursday before the series finale against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ramirez and Pedro Alvarez worked out together during warmups, taking grounders and throws. Alvarez, who made the third-to-first move a year ago, fielded some questions from Ramirez and gave pointers on some of the finer points of playing first base — some things Alvarez is still grasping, too.

I got only a quick word in with Ramirez — “We’ll see how it goes!” he said — but caught up with Alvarez after the Pirates’ 10-5 win last night.

“He's a hell of an athlete,” Alvarez said of Ramirez. “I don't see him having any issues at all. It'll just be a matter of him getting enough repetitions and then eventually, obviously, some game reps. But, hey, I'm looking to learn some things from him, and we can learn from each other.”

Manager Clint Hurdle said Ramirez didn’t give “an inch” of resistance. He was all in for whatever it takes to win in his final season.

"It can't hurt to take a look at it,” Hurdle said.

And Hurdle’s right. There’s no real argument against giving Ramirez a look at first base. Consider the following …

• Ramirez is by no means an elite defender. He’s been an average or below-average fielder most of his career — carrying a .952 career fielding percentage. His error totals have dropped the past few years, but so has his range. At 37, Ramirez has committed eight errors in 88 starts this season — we saw him deflect a grounder on Wednesday, one of a handful of misplays behind Gerrit Cole. Maybe his skill set would fit better at first base.

Josh Harrison (thumb) and Jordy Mercer (knee) are expected back later this month after their respective rehab assignments with Class AAA Indianapolis. While the Pirates’ biggest need most of the season has been to get steady production from their first basemen, the Harrison and Mercer injuries forced their hand in another direction — Harrison out? Jung Ho Kang could fill in at third. Harrison and Mercer both out? Kang had to play shortstop, leaving third base to Sean Rodriguez. We saw the sorry results in a long, losing series in Kansas City last month. Something needed to change. And when Harrison and Mercer return, you need somewhere to put Ramirez. He’s never played a day anywhere but third base and designated hitter in his major league career. But why not try him at first base and see if he’s somehow a good fit? That way in September — when one backup first baseman will likely be DFA’d — the Pirates could potentially go to Alvarez, Ramirez, Rodriguez or that additional OF/1B option (Travis Ishikawa or Michael Morse) at first. Like Alvarez said, having “a lot of able bodies and a lot of athleticism” is “a good problem to have.”

• There’s also this: Ramirez hasn’t exactly pounded pitching since he arrived again in Pittsburgh. Maybe he’ll end up not being starter-worthy come September. That’d be a disappointment, certainly, considering how hot he was when he was dealt to the Pirates. But if he is able to hack it at first base, it gives him another way to crack the lineup should he get shuttled out in favor of Harrison and/or Kang (when Mercer returns to shortstop). Flexibility is king. The way Rick Sofield put it the other day, the ability to play multiple defensive positions in the majors … “that’s sexy.”

• The Pirates have struggled to find steady production from their first basemen for years now. This season, they’ve gotten a .274 average and .279 on-base percentage from the position — well worse than any other position. And for all the griping, Alvarez’s 17 home runs are the most by a Pirates first baseman since Adam LaRoche in 2008.

Now, let’s compare Alvarez and Ramirez this season (WAR is via Fangraphs) …

                           WAR     R     H     HR     RBI    BA/OBA/SLG/OPS 

P. Alvarez               0.0      43    77     16       54     .238/.304/.438/.742

A. Ramirez             0.6      27     82     11       48     .243/.287/.404/.691

Alvarez has been better since July 25, the day Ramirez joined the Pirates. At the time, reports were floating about that the Pirates were trying to shop Alvarez at the trade deadline. He evidently did not get moved.

                           WAR     R     H     HR     RBI    BA/OBA/SLG/OPS 

P. Alvarez               —      6    12     2       7     .267/.313/.467/.779

A. Ramirez             —      2     13     0       6     .224/.250/.276/.526

Alvarez’s Achilles heel, of course, has been his defense. He has 16 errors, 10 more than any other first baseman this season and most in any season since Ryan Howard’s 19 in 2008 — Howard did it in 156 starts, Alvarez in 86. We saw a couple plays in St. Louis that reinforced the thought that Alvarez, whom the Pirates say is making strides at first, still doesn’t have a natural feel for the position. He chased a ball too far into the hole, recovering too late to take the throw and tag the bag. He missed two scoops that at least nicked his glove.

Then he made this blunder …

And don’t think it doesn’t bother him. It does, more than you might imagine.

"Obviously you want to finish a play,” he said afterward, “but it's just one of those things. [Stuff] happens.”

We’ll see how quickly Ramirez can acclimate to life at first base. If it clicks for him, it can be nothing but good news for the Pirates.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: and on Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.