This spring, the most intense competition is between back-up catching prospects Wilson Ramos and Drew Butera. Really, there is not much competition here. Butera handles a pitching staff well and has a strong arm, but he's weak on the actual catching side of the game (he has had a lot of borderline wild pitches/passed balls this spring). And his hitting is almost nonexistent.
Ramos, on the other hand, is strong at every facet of the game. He's drawn praise from the pitching staff and Joe Mauer for calling a good game and being a quick study. He has an arguably stronger arm than Mauer. He's solid on the catching aspect and the catch-and-tag play. And he has hit for average and power. Also, he's started most of the games--against the best pitchers--when Mauer hasn't, whereas Butera has been a late-inning substitute most of the spring.
If it were just a matter of spring training, it wouldn't be a question at all. Ramos has clearly won the job. But as we have seen year-in, year-out, spring training performance is but a small factor in who wins the job. Despite the organization's hype about competition for jobs, the organization must balance a lot of factors in making decisions like this. A guy can hit .500 while starting every game at short and making all but one play in the field, and still not make the team. What factors are in the way of Ramos's spring performance translating into a trip to Anaheim to start the season? I'll delve into them after the break.
Ramos is only 22 and has played in 54 games above A ball. Butera is 26 and has played in 242 games above A ball.That is somewhat balanced by playing time in winter ball. Ramos was the starting catcher for Los Tigres d'Araguas the last two winters, where he was an all star in 08/09 and the Caribbean Player of the Year in 09/10. That's around 100 games of AA-level ball. But he's young and inexperienced. Butera is clearly the more experienced player.
The feeling is Ramos could use more minor league seasoning. Though he has hit for average and power everywhere he's played, he is a notorious hacker. In his last healthy year at Fort Myers, he had a BB rate of 7.4% and a K rate fof 20.6%. Last year at New Britain, when he was injured for much of the season and unaccustomed to all the breaking balls, his BB rate was 2.8% and his K rate was 10.7 %. That shows some improvement in K/BB, but he's got work to do on that part of his game. The thinking is, he could use a year of hitting AAA pitching to learn how to lay off breaking balls out of the strike zone. If you don't give him those reps, he might never learn that crucial skill. It might be in Ramos's best interest as a player to file off as many rough edges as he can before it really counts.
Butera is what he is. He has shown very little improvement in any hitting skill in the minors (his OPS above A ball is below .600). So bringing him up now certainly won't stunt his development.
If you have a future star in your system, you don't want him sitting on the bench accumulating service time and increasing his price tag when it's his time to shine. At least that's conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says the most fiscally conservative position is to stash the player in the minors until he can start and make an impact. If you do this, the player can make an impact for three years before you have to start paying him what the market demands.
I have to say, I don't really buy conventional wisdom here for four reasons. First, if a player is sitting on the bench most of the time, he's not gaining a lot of value relative to the market. So when he is eligible for arbitration, he'll be pretty cheap. This is why Johan Santana complained about spending so much time in the bullpen prior to becoming eligible for arbitration because relievers are worth a lot less in arbitration than starters (excepting closers). There are lots of cases like this.
Second, if a player makes a huge impact for two years, the Twins way is to sign him to a long-term contract prior to arbitration. The Twins didn't save much by keeping Denard Span in the minors until June of 2008 because they signed him to a fair contract before he was ever eligible for arbitration. If the Twins want to keep a guy, they'll make a fair long-term offer and mitigate the risk of going to arbitration.
Third, there's no guarantee a guy will even stay with the club until his arbitration years. The Twins clearly held Jason Bartlett back to save a year of pre-arbitration eligibility. Before he even got to a hearing he was traded to the Rays. Ditto for Matt Garza. If the Twins don't want to keep a guy long term, they're almost as likely to trade him prior to arbitration than they are to take him to arbitration.
Fourth and most importantly, if you keep the best player in AAA to save money three years down the road, you will lose more games now. Losing is the surest way to keep fannies out of the seats. We saw this clearly with Bartlett/Castro. The Twins wondered why they couldn't draw fans in 2006 despite winning three division titles in four years. Well, it was pretty clear to a lot of fans that they were not fielding the best team they could. So why support that? If you really want to make money short and long term, put the best team on the field and worry about cost later. Holding your best talent back to save money three years down the road is penny wise and pound foolish.
Still, some argue that the Twins should follow conventional wisdom, even though the Twins have not done so under the Smith/Radcliff/Antony leadership.
Even though the Twins are not likely to care much about service time for a bench player, they do care about trade value. Suppose Ramos goes to AAA and has the breakout year many people expect. He'll be worth a lot more on the trade market when he's a top 10 BA prospect than he is now, merely a top 50 BA prospect. Buy low and sell high. Because he was hurt for much of last year, his trade value is somewhat depressed. But after a good year, it will be at its peak. All the more so if he has no major league service time. The Twins may not care much about service time, but other teams do. They will pay more for a player with less service time, all things cosidered.
Let's face it, the Twins just signed Mauer to a contract that will keep him in a Twins uniform for the rest of his career. That leaves Ramos without a starting job in this organization at his natural position. Whether they trade him and get a front-line starter, or they move him to a new position, his value to the Twins is highest if he spends the 2010 season in Rochester, at least until it's time to set playoff rosters.
Of all those arguments, the last one is really the only one that makes much sense to me. If Ramos is the better player, I really don't care about "experience." And I don't think seasoning is all that important at this stage, especially considering that we are only really talking about a month or so of the season until Jose Morales can return from injury. Once Morales returns, niether Ramos nor Butera have a spot on this team. I'm even less convinced about the service time argument. No, the only one that makes sense is trade value. Andd that makes me kinda sad because I like Ramos a lot and I want to see him in a Twins uniform. But I can acknowledge that it is in the best interests of the Twins and for the player to try to maximize his trade value. Even if it is for just one month of the season.
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