Great baseball players are extremely hard to come by.

There may come a time, many years in the future, when the sporting world is seized by a feverishly unscrupulous zeitgeist of genetic manipulation, an era in which human beings have been pushed to the limits of their physical structures and contests become breakneck battles of endurance between hyper-athletic specimens of biological and chemical engineering.  This is the sort of thing that’s occasionally dramatized in bad science fiction movies: in the year 2050, athletes are less a gifted portion of humanity and more a subspecies unto themselves.  A wide receiver with a 13-foot verticals artfully backflips over a free safety.  Power forwards perform 1080 reverse dunks that shatter the very basketball in their hands into trillions of little sparkling nanoparticles.  A square-jawed DH turns on a 130-MPH fastball and sends it screaming toward the right-field bleachers — alas, it is robbed by the center fielder, who scrambles up a twenty-foot wall to make the catch.

horacio3That time, thankfully, is not now.  In fact, we like to tell ourselves that it is quite the opposite: now that we’re paying such hawkish attention to the big anabolic meanies, the artisans of old-world skills such as – gasp – defense are suddenly hot properties.  It is, ostensibly, how the Rays were able to be so successful last year, and how teams like the Mariners – who will start an outfield of Endy Chavez, Franklin Gutierrez, and Ichiro Suzuki – are earning pre-season hype as the this year’s surprise sleepers.  A run saved, as they say, is just as good as a run earned (and currently costs a lot less).

Of course, there are still the freaks of nature that make fans’ hearts flutter, the shining temples of accomplishment within the game whose faces get put on video game boxes and sell us disposable razors.  And as most sensible observers of the game will tell you, the sport is not clean, and never will be, because fans’ dollars go toward watching the best players, not watching the best drug testers.  But most teams have only a handful of notoriously skilled players.  Pick a team at random – say, the Minnesota Twins – and you’ll be able to count the stars on one hand.  Joe Mauer, a hometown kid who’s a skilled offensive catcher;  Justin Morneau, a perennial All-Star at first;  Joe Nathan, one of the game’s elite closers.  Francisco Liriano might get there one day.  So might Delmon Young.

But who are these other guys?  Many more still, while not superstars, are above-average.  Carlos Gomez is very fast and a great defender.  Scott Baker is a capable middle-of-the-rotation starter.  Kevin Slowey never walks anybody.  Their talent, too, comes at a premium, and while they will not make headlines, they will please fans for as long as they keep their heads above the water and avoid really murdering their teams’ chances via whatever holes in their game have prevented them from reaching the upper-echelon.  These guys can’t be great, because there isn’t enough greatness left to go around.

Now, the game of baseball is not wont to do any favors: beneath these two layers of ability there lies a massive, churning lake of marginally-skilled players waiting to bubble and froth through and chinks that may appear in the armor of a ballclub as the season wears on.  These are not those young prospects whose fortunes appear written in the stars; rather, these are the sedentary beings past which those wunderkinds slide on their way to brighter things.

They are filler.

Sure, they were once young hotshots, the greatest things to ever pass through their high schools and junior colleges.  Somewhere along the way, though, the hands of fate brushed them aside.  They are occasionally stories of self-ruin (drug abuse, attitude problems) and are occasionally felled by physical malady (see: Mark Prior).  More often that not, though, they’re just not good enough at any part of the game.  Their reaction time is 0.1 seconds too slow, their fastball just a few miles-per-hour south of acceptable.

Baseball, much like life itself, exposes them with varying levels of haste.  Occasionally, these fraudulent icons are able to skip and bounce their way to decent-enough numbers that the men in charge, anxious as they are to get while the getting’s good, reward them with extremely lucrative contracts.  Gary Matthews Junior, having flashed 20/20 potential as a young outfielder in Texas, appeared to turn a corner in 2006 when he batted .313 with 19 homers.  He was rewarded with a $55 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Angels, and in 2009 finds himself FIFTH on the Angels’ depth chart, having swiftly proven himself wholly undeserving of the money he was given.

Others still are stuck in a sort of limbo, and can get by for years – maybe an entire career – on a mixture of luck and anonymity.  This can happen for a variety of reasons.

Some have excellent skills but have displayed a pathological inability to harness those skills.  Daniel Cabrera, a 6’9″ flamethrower from the Dominican Republic, has a fastball that often clocks in the mid-to-upper 90s.  He also walks in the neighborhood of five batters per nine innings, and in 146 career starts has a 5.05 ERA.  Players like Cabrera carom around the league for far longer than their peers who generate the same results because there are no shortage of men arrogant enough to dream that they can make a tweak here, an adjustment there, and voila: out from the thorny bramble bursts some rare and special player.

For many of these players, that quixotic and ethereal ability is far less apparent.  In 1997, the Atlanta Braves selected Horacio Ramirez, the son of two Mexican emigrants, in the fifth round of the amateur draft out of Inglewood High School in California.  A better fate could not befall a young pitcher: the Braves were establishing a stranglehold on the National League East, and boasted some of the best pitchers in baseball, three of whom – John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Mark Wohlers – were home-grown products.  They had a reputation for developing elite pitching, and were an excellent ballclub in a major media market.

Ramirez broke camp with the Braves in 2003 and would go on to make 29 starts for the ballclub, going 12-4 with a 4.00 ERA.  Had he registered a few more outs, that of course becomes 3.99;  a 23-year old left-hander going 12-4 with a 3.99 ERA in his rookie season is the sort of thing that’s going to inspire ramirez_horaciosome positive thoughts around the league.  So he essentially did that, but unfortunately for him (and the Braves), this was mostly smoke and mirrors.  In 182.1 IP, he only managed a woeful 100 strikeouts, walking 72 in the process.  He induced a lot of ground balls, though, and in that way was able to limit damage.

The next few years revealed two things about Ramirez: not only was he not very good, but he also had serious problems staying healthy.  He missed almost the entire 2004 season with shoulder tendinitis, and missed large portions of 2006 with hamstring and finger issues (he also missed a start after being drilled in the head by a Lance Berkman line drive).  When he was on the field, he displayed an almost preternatural inability to miss bats.  Nestled in between his ’04 and ’06 seasons was a 202-inning 2005; his fastball was clocked a hair shy of 89 mph, and he managed just 80 strikeouts for a 3.56 K/9 figure that was the second-worst in the league, behind only the immortal Carlos Silva (3.39).  Silva, to his credit, walked almost no one: his 0.43 BB/9 was far and away the best in baseball.  Ramirez walked six times that many batters, making his skillset uniquely unfit for major league service.

By the end of 2006, the Braves had likely soured on Ramirez, and so it was something of a coup for them when the Mariners offered to trade them hard-throwing setup man Rafael Soriano in exchange for Ramirez.  The deal was an unpopular one; Soriano was a high-risk brilliant arm and Ramirez was a high-risk mediocre arm.  The M’s gave him $2.65 million to avoid arbitration, and in exchange, Ramirez shed the exoskeleton of fortuitousness that had allowed him to hang on in Atlanta for so long.  He started 20 games which somehow added up to just 98 IP, walked more (42) than he struck out (40), and posted a very impressive 7.16 ERA, all while missing a month and a half with shoulder problems.

That was the highest ERA in the major leagues among pitcher who threw at least 90 innings.  A 7.00 ERA is a little bit like a 20-loss season.  When a starter loses 20 games, it is a painful badge of honor: for most pitcher, the team will stop the bleeding around 15 losses or so, and just run someone else, anyone else, out to the mound.  If a starter reach 20 and his team is still starting him, it’s probably because they have faith that the experience will further hone a future starter’s craft.  A 7.00 ERA is just as unusual, and though a pitchers ERA is more indicative of his skill than his Win-Loss record, maybe a guy’s just getting unlucky, or is leaving an excellent fastball up in the zone.

The Mariners had no real reason to believe that Ramirez was destined for the slightest bit of stardom.  He was a groundballer with unacceptably poor control and weak stuff.  Inexplicably, the Mariners offered him a raise for 2008, handing him $2.75 million instead of going to arbitration.

This is the sort of thing that makes a tale exceptional and unusual.  Poor talent is poor talent, and there is an endless supply of it.  It’s the teams that tend to mold them into goats, martyrs, and losers.

The Mariners, realizing the foolishness of their offer to Ramirez, released him less than two months later; the team ended up on the hook for about $500,000 of the deal.  He floated around the talent pool until late April, when the Royals scooped him up, signed him to a minor league deal, and converted him to a reliever. 

He did mostly mopup work for the squad, and the results looked good enough to interest the White Sox, who acquired him in August for a speedy Brazilian outfielder named Paulo Orlando.  Orlando is certainly Brazilian and he is very much an excellent runner, but it is something of a mistake to call him an outfielder (1383 AB, 78SB, 67BB).  Ramirez too was miscast in his own right: the White Sox attempted to use him as a left-handed specialist, but he wasn’t very good at it.  In truth, Ramirez hadn’t been terribly good against lefties since he was new to the league, and being that he wasn’t very good against righties either, the White Sox determined that they probably would not require his services beyond 2008 and let him walk.

He only had to wait a few months for a job opportunity: last December, the Royals came to him and offered him $1.8 million to rejoin the ballclub for the 2009 season.  This time, though, they made it clear that they intended to have horacio2him compete for a spot in the rotation, and when spring training began, they slotted him in as a starter.  He absolutely was mauled all spring training long, surrendering 25 earned runs in 25 innings and looking every bit the overmatched pitcher that he’s been since his rookie year.

While it is true that spring training performances are basically meaningless, it’s fine to make the assumption that if a player who has always stunk stinks again in spring training, he will continue to stink into the regular season, and probably for the rest of his life.  He’s scheduled to start against the New York Yankees this Saturday.

So what gives?  Is an out-of-shape washed-up 29-year-old left-hander with a history of injury issues and control problems that can’t strike anyone out really the best the Royals can do with that slot in their rotation?  Their next options would appear to be Luke Hochevar and Brian Bannister. 

Hochevar was the Royals’ first pick in the 2006 draft; in fact, they selected him first overall, taking him ahead of Brandon Morrow, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, and Joba Chamberlain, amongst others.  This would’ve been bad enough were it not for the fact that in the previous years’ draft, Hochevar was the subject of great controversy when he, after being drafted by the Dodgers, dumped his agent (Scott Boras), took the Dogers’ $3 million signing bonus, and then went back to Boras the next day and canceled the agreement.  Hochevar spent the remainder of the year playing Independent League ball, then re-entered the draft in ’06.  He made 22 starts with the Royals last year, and while he is destined to be something of a disappointment, he was not all that terrible, with a 72/47 K/BB ratio in 129 IP.  That’s too many walks, but it was his first full season, and he allowed less than a homer per game.  His 5.51 ERA was a little bit unlucky, as his strand rate (62%) was second-worst in the league (min: 120IP).

Brian Bannister is a better story than a pitcher: he was a walk-on second baseman at USC, converted to a pitcher, and had a very successful college career.  He is also a devout Christian, a member of Lambda Chi Alpha, is an avid photographer, and holds a special place in the hearts of sabermetricians everywhere for openly studying baseball statistics.  To summarize, Brian Bannister is a very smart guy, extraordinarily smart for a baseball player; he realizes that he’s not a great pitcher, and so he’s looking for an extra edge in numbers where others might find them in pill bottles or rabbits’ feet.  The “not a great pitcher” part is more important for the Royals that the intelligence factor, though in handing Horacio Ramirez a rotation spot – to say nothing of Sidney Ponson – the Royals have indicated that they need brains just as desperately as they need bats and arms.

Hochevar should almost certainly be starting over Ramirez.  Instead, both he and Bannister will begin the year in AAA, while the Royals’ top minor league pitchers – Daniel Cortes, Tim Melville, Danny Gutierrez – pitch in A and AA leagues, waiting for 2010 or 2011 debuts.  The Royals’ system is in an awkward place right now: they have top young talent at the major league level in Zach Greinke, Alex Gordon, and Joakim Soria, and have a decent amount of projectable prospects, but those guys are years away. 

Positions like these dictate that the front office bridge the gap and do some real work to keep the team competitive while young talent matures and gets the fans excited.  This is especially true for the Royals, who play in the worst division in baseball.  They could finish third in the division with a .500 record, which is something of an accomplishment when your team hasn’t been to the postseason in 23 years and has a .416 winning percentage this decade.  Sure, the team could pony up for Pedro Martinez, but they’re a low-payroll club and already have most of their ill-advised pitching contracts locked up in the bullpen (Kyle Farnsworth and Ron Mahay will earn $8.25m in 2009).  The team is also paying Ross Gload $1.5m to play for the Marlins.

Horacio Ramirez is an awful pitcher, but he didn’t sign himself to that contract.  The Royals’ decision to put Ramirez in the starting rotation is basically indefensible, and it is unclear how exactly he will improve upon what Luke Hochevar could’ve done.  Career 39-33 record, 4.59 ERA.  Horacio Ramirez is what’s considered “freely-available talent” at best, which is unfortunate for the Royals, being that they are paying him almost two million dollars for his services when they’re already paying a number of guys in AAA who could’ve done the exact same thing as him.Yankees Royals Baseball

What is it exactly that causes teams to make these sorts of decisions, to hand over $2m and a roster spot to a player who offers them absolutely nothing?  What fundamental, hard-wrought biases muster up these tragic, old-timey missteps?  Is the team so desperate for a left-handed option in the rotation that they are willing to eschew rationality in their pursuit of one? 

There are countless biases which skew the direction of human decisionmaking, leading even normally reasonable people astray into the tar pits from which players like Ramirez are dredged.  Perhaps even more remarkable is that the Royals’ other options are so bland as to make proper the criticism of their spending habits rather than their level of talent at the Major League level.  Good baseball players are extremely hard to come by; the Royals don’t have enough of them to matter this season, and they’ve complicated matters by thinking that they need to pay a premium for a starter who’ll strike out fewer batters this season than their closer.

It’s a tough league.  Talent is at a premium, and organizations are constantly at war over it; each team must figure out how to retain their young stars for long enough to be able to, with help from a supporting cast of free agent signees and trade acquisitions, make a run at the postseason and the financial windfalls which generally accompany such berths.  Dollars are more precious than ever these days, which makes younger, cheaper players absolutely critical to an organization’s success.  No team can draft and develop a 25-player Major League roster, so, and Free Agency will never be passe.  With smart spending habits and a shrewd baseball mind, there are just enough guys out there to make it work.

For everyone else, there’s Horacio Ramirez.