"He's the best player on their team," said one NL manager, "at least the way he's playing right now. He is completely locked in."
Ramirez was a career .313/.385/.520 hitter through age 26. "Hall of Fame ability," as one general manager described him. But over the next two seasons (2011-12 with the Marlins and Dodgers), while sometimes managing a cranky left shoulder, Ramirez sunk to .252/.326/.416 in what should have been prime years.
Now the original version of Ramirez is back and playing hard. After recovering from a thumb injury, Ramirez has hit .386/.444/.693 in 39 games -- that includes better on-base and slugging percentages than Puig. The Dodgers are a .625 team when Ramirez starts (20-12). After a taste of the WBC championship playing for the Dominican Republic, Ramirez is looking for his first trip to the postseason.
If nothing else, if Ramirez keeps this up, he will ratchet up his value when the Dodgers approach him this offseason about a contract extension. Without an extension, Ramirez could head into free agency after next season at age 30. In other words, he could be the 2014 version of Robinson Cano, whose slash line (.308/.354/.505) is so close to that of Ramirez (.301/.373/.502) he could establish a ballpark contract number for Ramirez this winter.
2. Jays should consider trading Johnson
This is the time of year when you will hear losing teams talk about making a run at the playoffs, as if the problems of the first 90 or so games just disappear. The odds don't match the optimism. In the wild card era, only the 2003 Minnesota Twins (44-49) were more than two games worse than .500 at the All-Star break and wound up in the postseason -- and they benefited from a weak AL Central in which no other team won more than 86 games.
The Toronto Blue Jays are four games under .500 with four teams ahead of them in the AL East, the toughest division in baseball. They rank eighth in the AL in runs scored and 14th in runs allowed. Their rotation (5.07 ERA) is the worst in the league with the exception of the staff in Minnesota. In short, they look nothing like a team that has a shot at a playoff spot.
So why keep Josh Johnson? The righthander is a free agent at the end of the season. He is a guy with enough of an injury history to make a team squeamish about a long-term deal. But as a two-month rental he would be attractive to many teams. When Johnson is right, such as when he won the ERA title in 2010, he can be dominant.
Since then, however, Johnson is 12-20 with a 3.68 ERA in 52 starts. He turns 30 next January and has thrown 200 innings in a season just once.
He has started 12 games this year and Toronto has won only three of them. Johnson is 1-5 with a 5.16 ERA. Only once this year has he managed back-to-back starts without giving up four or more runs.
October is a faint hope for Toronto. If they trade Johnson, it won't be an indication that the Jays are giving up entirely on this season. It would be a smart move to turn a diminished commodity into something to make them better next year. So far the Blue Jays are telling teams he's not available. After the season they could offer him the one-year, $15 million tender, so if he does sign elsewhere, he at least nets them a draft pick. But Toronto ought to find out if he has greater value now as a trade chip before the deadline.
3. Assessing Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg is no longer a phenom. The Washington Nationals righthander is too old for that perception. Strasburg, who gets the ball tonight for Washington, turns 25 years old tomorrow. The first pick in the 2009 draft has fewer career wins (26) than fellow 2009 draftees Mike Leake (36) and Mike Minor (28), largely because of injuries.
While Strasburg's 26 wins at age 25 may sound modest, he actually fares well when compared against the previous 13 pitchers taken first overall. It is not an especially illustrious group. As the following chart shows, Strasburg ranks third in wins and first in ERA among Number Ones on their 25th birthday -- but only sixth in innings.