Unrealistic Expectations Surround Yankees’ Ramiro Pena

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As Spring Training mercifully draws to a close, the New York Yankees have filled 24 of the 25 spots on their active roster. The final spot is for the unenviable position of utility infielder. Cody Ransom was set to fill this role, but Alex Rodriguez’s injury has thrust Ransom into to the starting lineup, creating a vacancy on the Yankees’ bench. The competition has come down to former Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa and Yankees farmhand Ramiro Pena. Berroa has had the superior performance offensively, hitting .373/.383/.610. He is, however, 31 years old and nothing more than the .260/.305/.378 hitter revealed by his career line. The 23-year-old Pena has posted a .295/.348/.361 line – slightly better than his career minor-league line. By all accounts, his defense has been exceptional. It has been a fairly uninspired competition, as one would expect when the prize is the utility infielder’s role.

The real story here is not the competition, but the incomprehensible excitement over Pena’s merely average performance. Both local and national writers have begun to include Pena in the discussion of elite Yankees prospects. The New York Daily News‘ Bill Madden wrote the following about Pena:

Jeter’s decreased range at shortstop, especially to his left, has been an increasingly hot topic around baseball – which the Yankee high command has pointedly chosen to ignore, because there didn’t appear to be any bona fide prospects in the system. That, however, all changed this spring with the emergence of 23-year-old Ramiro Pena, whose dazzling glovework has made him the frontrunner to win the utility infielder’s job until Alex Rodriguez comes back in May.

Fact is, Pena has always demonstrated world class defense since being signed by the Yankees out of Mexico in 2005, but his improvement with the bat is what’s elevated him to legitimate major league prospect status.

ESPN’s Peter Gammons placed Pena in some elite company in his column:

Now when one looks at the Yankees — and while they have huge future commitments to players in their 30s like Alex RodriguezMark TeixeiraCC SabathiaA.J. Burnett and Jorge Posada — they have begun to connect the dots from within. Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner are in their starting lineup, Joba Chamberlain is in the rotation and Phil Hughes, Austin Jackson and Ramiro Pena are on the immediate horizon.

Baseball is a strange and unpredictable game, so it would be foolish to write off completely any player’s chances for success at the major-league level. But given Pena’s age and body of work, there is no justification for such unbridled optimism over his professional future. Madden’s description of Pena as a “bona fide” and “legitimate” prospect is entirely too lofty. Look at his minor-league numbers:

  • 2006 (A+): .280/.335/.317, 0 HR, 4 doubles, 16 BB, 26 K in 246 plate appearances
  • 2006 (AA): .198/.247/.221, 0 HR, 2 doubles, 5 BB, 19 K in 98 plate appearances
  • 2007 (AA): .252/.332/.297, 0 HR, 7 doubles, 22 BB, 33 K in 233 plate appearances
  • 2008 (AA): .266/.330/.357, 2 HR, 20 doubles, 41 BB, 86 K in 506 plate appearances

I know that there’s much more to minor-league performance that just statistics, but the numbers do tell us something. They tell us that Pena hasn’t hit at any level, and probably won’t as time goes on. Even if Pena develops into an elite defender with a terrible bat – like Adam Everett or John McDonald – that provides production that is only slightly higher than replacement-level. Replacement-level production is not what one expects from a “bona fide” or “legitimate” major-league prospect. 

Gammons’ assessment of Pena is even more ridiculous than Madden’s. While Madden colored Pena’s performance with minimal context and depth, Gammons haphazardly and inappropriately includes the shortstop’s name in a select group of players. Even though Cano wasn’t considered an elite prospect, there were indicators of hitting aptitude. Gardner had elite speed and a great eye. Chamberlain’s electric stuff made him one of the game’s top prospects. Hughes dominated the minor leagues with exceptional command and a great breaking ball. Jackson is uniformly ranked as the best or second-best prospect in the Yankees’ system. Quite simply, Gammons or any other reporter has no business including Pena in a discussion of good-to-elite prospects. 

Numbers don’t always tell the entire story when it comes to forecasting a player’s career. Minor-leaguers in particular require the careful use of both statistics and scouting to make any sort of prognosis. With that being said, it’s safe to say that a prospect must perform at some minimally acceptable level to be considered at all legitimate. Pena hasn’t done that, making the Madden and Gammons’ praise unwarranted at best, and irresponsible at worst. One gets the sense that both sportswriters had no idea who Pena was prior to Spring Training, and hopped on the bandwagon when questions about Rodriguez’s health and Jeter’s performance emerged. 

Perhaps Pena will become the Yankees’ shortstop of the future and render my position totally wrong. Lord knows, I’m rooting for it. But it seems incredibly unlikely that a prospect organizationally-unranked by both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America will do so. And I think it’s pretty irresponsible for sportswriters to raise this possibility when most objective and subjective information indicates that it simply isn’t going to happen.

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