The ball jumped off the bat of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, a burning one-hopper a step to Aramis Ramirez's left. Aging outfielder Jim Edmonds began lumbering toward second base, but as Ramirez (whose reaction to the ball, hit nearly right at him, was characteristically slow) took a jab step toward the ball and reached out to collect it, an inning-ending double play seemed nearly certain.
And then it wasn't. The ball bounced higher than Ramirez expected, and as the 31-year-old tried to adjust, his legs went out from under him, and the ball glanced off the leather on its way into left field. Edmonds held at second, and Braun reached safely at first base.
The misplay, scored as a hit, opened the door for the Brewers' sixth-inning run. Edmonds would score two batters later, on a Casey McGehee sacrifice fly. At that moment, Milwaukee took a 5-4 lead.
Ramirez came up to led off the sixth inning, and promptly cranked a game-tying solo home run. Quickly forgotten, for those who even took notice, was his non-error. He would commit another in the ninth inning, when Milwaukee shortstop Alcides Escobar hit a one-hop rocket straight into his chest.
Both defensive plays neatly characterize Ramirez's defense for the past two-plus seasons at the hot corner. His range is decent, especially on balls to his right, and those plays also allow him to showcase a strong throwing arm. On balls hit to his left, however, and on any hard-hit balls right at him, Ramirez looks lost. His feet sometimes get tangled; he sometimes freezes altogether. Just as often, he is able to get only the heel of his glove on the ball, resulting in wild deflections.
Now, the Cubs pay Ramirez to hit, and he did come through with the key blast to redeem himself Thursday (although he would later make the final out of the game as the tying run at the plate). But his defensive woes continue to haunt his team, especially because they result in more balls finding their way out to the abysmal Alfonso Soriano in left field.
At issue, then, is whether or not Chicago ought to bring back their slugging third baseman for 2011. The question arises from Ramirez's complicated contract situation, which could allow him to opt out of the final year of his deal after this season. Indications are that he may do so if he has a good season at the plate, and if the Cubs do not make positive progress toward a return to the postseason.
If Ramirez were to opt out, should GM Jim Hendry pursue him as a free agent? This query requires a deeper look at Ramirez's value, and whether or not he will retain it well with age.
Obviously, the constantly accumulating minor injuries that have cost him 186 games over the past six seasons will not permit Ramirez to regain his solid fielding form of 2007. He will only decline, and unless shortstop prospect Starlin Castro is far superior to Ryan Theriot's already above-average range at short, that will cost Chicago runs.
In order for Ramirez to earn the $14.6 million he would be paid next season on his current deal, then, he needs to provide about 45 runs of offense above replacement next year. That is a figure he has reached in four of the last six seasons, according to FanGraphs. In those seasons, however, he was younger, and there was less known risk of injury.
Therefore, the chances of Ramirez earning his hefty contract for 2011 are slim. So, too, though, are the chances he will opt out, because the market will likely not reward an aging defensive liability with a richer deal. That leaves one avenue through which Chicago can unburden itself of the first of its albatross contracts: trading Ramirez.
This will be somewhat sticky, because Ramirez has a no-trade clause, but unlike the Cubs' other fading long-term commitments (Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano), Ramirez still has trade value. The team could rid itself of virtually all the money owed to Ramirez, and perhaps even get something of value in return.
This does not have to, and in fact should not, happen during the season. There is no reason for the team to rush the process, so long as they remain on the edge of contention. But in the end, whether because of his failing defense or to make room for 2007 first-round pick Josh Vitters, the prudent move on Hendry's part would be to make 2010 the last season on the North Side for one of the best clutch hitters and third basemen in Cubs history.