Padres Find New Alex(e)i

The Padres did a strange thing last season. They tried to put a legit contender on the field without upgrading at shortstop, which left them with 153 games of Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes at short and cameos from the likes of Will Middlebrooks and Jedd Gyorko. It wasn’t pretty.

So the Padres have finally solved their shortstop problem by inking Alexei Ramirez to a one-year deal worth a reported $4-5 million. Ramirez is 34 and coming off the worst season of his career, but it’s still easy to see how he’ll help the Padres in the short term. His 79 OPS+ last year—the second-worst mark of his career—is clearly higher than both Amarista’s and Barmes’ respective career figures, and he’s generally rated as a plus defender before tailing off over the last couple of seasons.

That’s the thing with Ramirez—he’s had a solid career, reeling off a series of 3-plus win seasons through his late 20s and early 30s, but it’s less certain that he’s still a valuable player right now. What matters to the Padres, since they only signed him for one season, is how he performs in 2016. We know a couple of things about projecting players . . . one, that at the player-by-player level, it’s extremely difficult. But also that players can generally be expected to regress back toward their career averages after particularly good/bad years and that players generally decline in their 30s, if not sooner. Generally.

There’s both good and bad news there for Ramirez. The good: He’s just a year removed from a 103 OPS+ in a season where he tallied 52 extra-base hits and 21 stolen bases while playing league-average defense at short. That’s a really good player, and it’s who Ramirez was in 2014. There’s a decent chance, based on his ’14 performance and overall career numbers, that Ramirez bounces back next season. Bad news: He’s 34 and his value is tied up in speed and defense, and he’s almost certainly declining in both of those areas—and probably with the bat, too. So while he might get a bump from the regression factor, Father Time no longer resides in his corner. In short, his expected performance is somewhat hard to pin down, hence the one-year, buy-low deal.

Of course, the other thing here is that even if Ramirez turns in a vintage Ramirez season, does it really matter? I don’t mean that in a existential-crisis-I-wonder-what-the-hell’s-going-on-in-the-Andromeda-galaxy sort of way . . . I mean, does a 3.5 WAR season from Ramirez even push the 2016 Padres onto the outermost fringes of contention? With how the rest of the NL West—sans the Rockies—has treated the offseason as a months-long game of one-upmanship, maybe all Ramirez does is help the Padres fill out the division’s superfecta.

Of course—there’s always another of course—you can’t blame A.J. Preller for trying to improve the club when the opportunity presents itself, and (if the rumored price tag is true) it’s hard to find fault in this deal, at least in isolation. The bigger question is The Bigger Plan, which doesn’t seem plainly apparent right now. Either way, Ramirez should be moderately more entertaining to watch than last year’s shortstop quartet, and I suppose that’s something.

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Postscript: I didn’t mention Ian Desmond or Javier Guerra (or, shoot, like 10,000 other potential ball players) here not because they’re not important, but simply because I just didn’t want to ramble on, darnit. So I’m not even going to discuss them now. I just put this here so that you know that I know that those two guys exist, and that sure, in a well-thought-out analysis of this transaction, they’d probably each deserve mention. 

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