Milwaukee Hot Corner Shuffle

The Brewers have made a whirlwind of activity at the third base position in the last twenty four hours. First, they inked Aramis Ramirez to a three year deal. Then, they flipped incumbent third baseman Casey McGehee to the division rival Pirates for Jose Veras.

Ramirez is an above average offensive third baseman with a below average glove. He offers power combined with batting average, and will find himself slotted in the heart of the Brewers order. 2011 was a tremendous rebound season for him after an ugly 2010. It was also his healthiest season, as he played in 149 games. That game total represents his highest total since playing in an equal number in 2008. As one would suspect, that means Ramirez hasn’t been the healthiest of players in recent years. He played in just 82 games in 2009 and 124 in 2010. His shaky health dates back even further than recent years, and he has eclipsed 600 plate appearances in only four of eight full seasons with the Cubs. Suffice it to say, an aging Ramirez (33 years old) is a safe bet to miss time.

Fantasy owners have put up with the frustration of his constant injuries because he has been a consistently good performer with the bat from a top heavy fantasy position. His batting average has finished above .300 in five seasons with the Cubs, including three seasons of .310 or better, and below .290 just twice (one of those seasons resulting in a .289 batting average). He has paired strong averages with solid home run totals. Ramirez has fallen short of 25 home runs in just one season with the Cubs, and that was in 2009 when he played in 82 games.

Of course, recent performance weights more heavily in future projection, so what he has done the last two seasons should be of greatest note. As I alluded to above, 2010 was a forgettable season for Ramirez. He slashed .241/.294/.452 and his lone saving grace was that he clubbed 25 home runs. A big culprit for his struggle that year was a nagging thumb injury. He struggled to square the ball up, hitting a career low 15.8 line drives. His flyball percentage also soared that season to a career high 56.8 percent. With the ball leaving the yard at near his career rate that season, his BABIP and average suffered from fly balls that stayed in the park.

Things returned to normal for Ramirez this year. In fact, he did the best job of his career roping line drives at a single season best 23.2 percent clip. His home run-per-flyball (HR/FB) has been largely static hovering around 12 percent since 2008, so a cliff season including a boat load of warning track teases doesn’t look all that likely.

Recently on MLB TVs program Clubhouse Confidential, host Brian Kenny highlighted Ramirez’s home and road splits and cautioned that leaving the friendly confines of Wrigley Field could substantially negatively impact his offensive production. I enjoy the program, and love Kenny’s appreciation for the application of advanced stats to baseball, but Wrigley Field is no Coors Field. According to Bill James Park Indices, Ramirez is moving to a much friendlier park for right-handed home run power. It’s possible, if not likely, that Ramirez HR/FB rate will go up slightly thanks to his change of home ballparks.

Following a healthy season, Ramirez fantasy value is about as high as it could be. Owners that choose to pass on the cream of the crop at the position could do worse than drafting Ramirez. Drafting a viable backup is suggested, though, since it is almost inevitable that he’ll miss at least a dozen ball games. Pencil him in for 25-30 home runs and a batting average north of .285.

The acquisition of Ramirez allowed the Brewers to send McGehee packing for a hard throwing and erratic reliever in Veras. After a ho-hum minor league career in the Cubs organization, McGehee pleasantly surprised fantasy owners hitting .301/.360/.499 with 16 home runs in 394 plate appearances for the Brewers. Questions about his emergence rightfully dogged him going into 2010 fantasy drafts.

Owners that were drinking his Kool-Aid were rewarded with an outstanding follow up season. He hit .285/.337/.464 with 23 home runs and 104 RBIs. McGehee could also be counted on to suit up, playing in 157 games. In both seasons he walked at a slightly below average, but acceptable, rate and offset that by striking out less than league average. Something that flew a bit under the radar, because he maintained useful surface stats, was that his line drive percentage took a nose dive from 21.6 percent to 16.9 percent. His flyball percentage also dropped, and his groundball rate sky rocketed from 38.0 percent to 47.5 percent.

Little did most realize how ominous his dramatic batted ball profile change was. The bottom fell out on McGehee this year. He hit .223/.280/.346 with 13 home runs. McGehee saw yet another increase in his propensity for pounding the ball into the ground, and fewer of his fly balls turned into souvenirs. Things don’t look much brighter for McGehee in 2012. Trading Miller Park for PNC Park cripples his prospects at besting 20 home runs like he had in 2010. Fantasy owners should look elsewhere when filling their third base roster spot, and their bench. His greatest fantasy value could come in the form of lighting a fire under the Bucs second overall selection in the 2008 draft, Pedro Alvarez.

Alvarez was a colossal disappointment this season. His conditioning was less than stellar coming into this year, and his play may have suffered as a direct result. The former Vanderbilt product struggled early in the season before hitting the disabled list with a quadriceps injury. The disabled list was the only thing he could hit, finishing with a sub-Mendoza line batting average (.191). Alvarez’s struggles led the Pirates to demote him to the minors after activating him from the disabled list.

His play in Triple-A leaves more questions than answers. He struck out way too often, 28.4 percent, and failed to display his trademark power. The lone positive for Alvarez was a bloated 14.9 percent walk rate. He’s going to need to make some serious changes to his game if he hopes to succeed, but his raw power makes him an intriguing gamble for 2012. Re-draft league owners shouldn’t have to invest more than a very late round pick or a couple dollars in auction drafts on this Buc. At that cost, he is a decent gamble. Things become a bit trickier in dynasty formats. Owners in that format may be reluctant to deal him after such a disastrous season. If he can be bought from a bitter owner at a bargain basement price, the upside is there to make that investment worthwhile.