Ramirez could land in Fenway by '06

Ian from Beverly, Massachusetts, writes:
After putting up solid numbers in Sarasota, in a pitcher friendly league no less, having an outstanding showing in his 32 games in Portland, as well as being the Dominican League player of the week for the first week of the season, is Hanley Ramirez the real deal? With Orlando Cabrera a free agent, should the Red Sox get a one year stopgap to give Ramirez another year of development? Also, how does Dustin Pedroia compare to Ramirez?

Ramirez made a lot of progress this year. In 62 games for Class A Sarasota, he hit .310 with a .364 on-base percentage. His power production was marginal; just eight doubles, four triples, and a single homer leading to a mediocre .389 slugging percentage. But he showed a lot more pop after being promoted to Double-A, hitting .310/.360/.512 in 32 games for Portland. Note that the Florida State League is a very difficult place to hit for power, so his improved extra-base production after moving up to Double-A is not as strange as it may seem. Ramirez also swiped 24 bases this year, and scouts were pleased with his improved reliability on defense.

Pure talent has never been Ramirez's problem. He is one of the most gifted natural athletes in the minor leagues today. This shows up strongest on defense, where his above-average range, strong arm and quick hands are impossible not to notice. His athleticism helps on offense, as well, as he is able to generate plus bat speed due to his natural quickness. Ramirez is still just 20 years old, and given a normal development curve, he will be a very impressive player.

The main concern is about his personality. He has a reputation for being impulsive and immature, has been suspended for poor behavior in the past, and doesn't impress people with his work ethic. His natural talent is such that he's been able to play well despite these issues, but in order to reach his full potential, he needs to grow up. Bad behavior is relatively common among kids his age, so in general terms he has time to pull out of it, granted that the baseball environment is not always conducive to the formation of good character. There's a lot of temptation about, the temptation to coast on natural talent being one of the strongest, and even the best organizations have trouble shielding players from it. Ramirez is his own worst enemy; some guys like that overcome themselves, but many do not.

As for Pedroia, Dustin doesn't have anything close to Ramirez's natural tools. But his baseball skills are highly developed, and his work ethic is exceptional. Perhaps he can set a good example for Hanley. In any event, to answer your question Ramirez isn't quite ready for the Show at this point, so a stopgap player would make a lot of sense to me.

Andrew from Oxnard, California, asks:
Jeff Mathis was supposed to be one of the Angels' "Big Three" minor league prospects along with Dallas McPherson and Casey Kotchman. McPherson and Kotchman have lived up to that billing, but it seems like Mathis really struggled this season hitting .221 with 14 homers and 101 strikeouts to 59 walks at Double-A Arkansas. What is your opinion on him and when can we expect to see him in the big leagues?

Most observers, including me, felt that Mathis was the second-best catching prospect in the game entering 2004, behind only Joe Mauer in Minnesota. Mathis got off to a good start in Double-A, but he collapsed in the second half and finished with very mediocre statistics, as you point out. Even his defense wasn't as good this year as last season. There didn't seem to be any injuries involved. What happened here?

Word around the Texas League is that Mathis went into a funk after McPherson and Kotchman were promoted to Triple-A. The Arkansas roster was depleted by those promotions, and Mathis tried too hard to pick up the burden. He was pitched around a lot; he lost track of the strike zone, trying too hard to hit for power. At least that's the theory.

Young catchers often stop hitting for no apparent reason, and many of them stop hitting completely, failing to develop as expected. I call this Young Catcher Offensive Stagnation Syndrome. It is too early to know if Mathis truly suffers from that or if it was just a slump. Scouts are still high on his physical tools, and given Mathis' young age (21) and reputation for having a good work ethic, I wouldn't panic at this point. He needs to re-establish himself in '05, perhaps starting the year again in Double-A with a mid-season promotion on tap if he does well. Personally, I think he will rebound, but with catchers there is always a risk.

Neill from North Carolina writes:
I was looking for someone in the low minors with some speed, since my fantasy team needs more steals in the future. I noticed a guy in the Pirates system named Rajai Davis. I haven't heard much about him, but he stole 57 bases this year and hit .314. Is he for real?

Davis was a 38th round draft pick back in 2001, out of the University of Connecticut-Avery Point. I pegged him as a sleeper in the 2004 Baseball Prospect Book, and indeed he had a fine year in the Carolina League, hitting .314/.388/.424 with 57 steals. A switch-hitter with speed and decent plate discipline, Davis hit .384 in rookie ball in '02 and .305 in the Sally League in '03, so he is no stranger to good performance.

Positives for Davis are an adequate walk rate, very good speed, gap power and a low strikeout rate. His main weakness is age: He turned 24 last month and has yet to appear in Double-A. For this reason, Davis seldom appears on lists of top prospects. Some scouts are skeptical he will hit against advanced pitching, but his performance in A-ball has been very good, and he deserves a full shot in Double-A. Personally, I have been, and remain, optimistic about his future. Although whether he has a chance as a regular or will just be a fourth outfielder, remains to be seen.

Whether or not he is a good fantasy investment depends on the exact structure and rules in your particular league. For long-term leagues with big farm rosters, I like Davis as a speculative play. He could end up being similar to Tike Redman, somewhat overmatched as a regular but very useful on the bench, although my instinct is that Davis has a higher upside than Redman.

John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.