Perform Or You're Gone

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IFebruary 3, 2012

I was looking at NPB Tracker today, and saw that Alex Ramirez will be playing for the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2012.

For those of you who are not familiar with Alex Ramirez, he is one of the greatest foreign players who has ever played in Japan’s NPB.  After eleven seasons in NPB, he has hit 359 HRs and has a career batting average of .303.  (The knocks on Alex are poor 1B defense and he doesn’t walk much.)  In 2010, he broke Sadaharu Oh’s record by driving in 100 or more runs for the eighth consecutive season.

Ramirez was 36 years old in 2011, and he had a bad year by his standards.  Only, it really wasn’t that bad.

After a 2010 in which he hit .304 and set career highs with 49 HRs and 129 RBIs, he hit only .277 with 23 HRs and 73 RBIs.  However, there was so little offense in NPB in 2011, these numbers were actually pretty good when you compare him to what all the other hitters were doing.

His .277 batting average was still good for 9th in the Central League, his 23 HRs were tied for second, his RBI total was 5th best and his slugging percentage was still 4th best.  Pretty good rankings for a player his age.

Not for the Yomiuri Giants.  Alex will be playing for the Bay Stars in 2012.  Going from Yomiuri to Yokohama is the equivalent of going from the Yankees to the Royals.

There is at least some method to Yomiuri’s madness.  Alex was paid around $6.5 million in 2011 (the information I have says he was paid a total of two billion yen for the four seasons from 2008 through 2011), which is more than Yomiuri is apparently willing to pay for merely well above average performance.  By comparison, the information I found suggests that Ramirez signed a two-year deal with the Bay Stars that will pay him around $1.05 million per year.

Ramirez also wanted guarantees on playing time, and although he’s making a lot less with Yokohama, given the Bay Stars’ financial constraints, his $2.1 million over two years means he’ll be given every opportunity to play.

This could be a great deal or a complete bust for the Bay Stars.  On the one hand, Ramirez is only one season removed from arguably his best season.  On the other hand, he’s 37 now and his performance could deteriorate rapidly.

My guess is that Ramirez will perform better in 2012 than he did in 2011, which means he’ll probably give the Bay Stars their money’s worth in this season alone.  In 2o13, I expect his performance will be at his 2011 level or below.

The moral of the story is that the moment a highly-paid foreign player hits a bump in the road, NPB teams are looking for the exit and for someone new.

In some ways, it makes a great deal of sense.  Players as a group get old in a hurry, and teams are more often wiser dumping a player a year too soon rather than a year too late.

On the other hand, foreign players like Ramirez who adapt completely to the Japanese game are hard to find.  Yomiuri will be hoping for peak performance from Ramirez’s replacement John Bowker.  Bowker is a lot cheaper and lot younger than Ramirez, but experience suggests the odds are only about 50-50 he’ll make the necessary adjustments and develop into an NPB superstar.