9. Is Horacio Ramirez tradebait?

Bill Shanks looks at Horacio Ramriez, an Atlanta starter whose status for next year is in question.

He is perhaps the most frustrating member of the Atlanta Braves' rotation. No one causes as much debate about his potential and his talent than left-hander Horacio Ramirez. And after another injury-plagued questions, there are more questions than answers about Ramirez heading into the offseason.

Ramirez won 11 games in 2005, after missing most of the 2004 season. The Braves hoped that a new voice would help Ramirez elevate his game to the next level. But once again injuries limited his season.

In his first start of the season, on April 5th, Ramirez strained his hamstring covering first base. He would miss seven weeks before returning on May 27th. In his first seven games after his return, Ramirez was 4-2 with a 2.72 ERA, 45 hits in 46.1 innings, 14 earned runs, 14 walks, and 21 strikeouts. His only poor start was in Houston, when he allowed six earned runs despite a horrific play at first base by Brian Jordan. He was also hit in the head with a line drive in that game as well.

After that strong run, Ramirez gave up seven runs in one inning in Cincinnati. He then got bombed in the big weekend series with the Mets in late July. And then in early August, Ramirez left a game against the Phillies with a strained ligament in his finger, the same injury that caused John Thomson to miss almost three months in 2005. Ramirez tried to overcome the injury, but he was finally shut down for the rest of the season in September.

Ramirez finished with only 14 starts on the season, a 5-5 record, and a 4.48 ERA, a tad lower than the 4.63 he posted in 2005. His strikeouts were up (4.36 per 9 IP compared to 3.55 in 2005), while his control was just a bit worse than the previous season. He had eight quality starts in his fourteen appearances.

So what now? With Ramirez falling into a pattern of having trouble staying healthy, and not really seeing him turn that much of a corner, what are the Braves to do with this lefty that has some talent?

GM John Schuerholz has said that getting the Braves back to the pitching-first organization that produced so many playoff appearances is his priority. So that would seemingly place any pitcher not named John Smoltz, and perhaps even Chuck James, in jeopardy. We're not sure what's going to happen with Tim Hudson. While Mike Hampton seems healthy, we all need to see that first before being convinced. And that leaves Kyle Davies, a young pitcher that struggled through an injury-plagued season himself, and Ramirez.

That's six pitchers - needing only five.

And you can almost be guaranteed that there will be at least one addition to the rotation, which further places Ramirez's spot in jeopardy. Plus, Horacio's salary and pending arbitration status makes it a bit more ominous for him. He made $2.2 million this season, and despite his partial season, players rarely take a pay cut in arbitration. So how much are the Braves going to want to pay a player that has trouble staying healthy in consecutive seasons and may not be that terrific to begin with?

There is no doubt Ramirez has talent. The Braves like him a great deal. They were able to see significant progress with him working with Roger McDowell this season. McDowell helped Ramirez regain some of his aggressiveness, along with better pitch selection with his breaking stuff. There are some that still believe Ramirez can be a 15-game winner in the big leagues, but how long should the Braves wait for that to happen?

While pitching is a priority this winter, Ramirez could still be used to help out needs at second base or left field, as the team searches for a leadoff man. And if the team acquires a veteran starter, Ramirez could be used as the bait. It might take a package of players for that type of starter, so his status could make Ramirez expendable.

Don't be totally surprised if the Braves bring Ramirez back. He's still relatively affordable for a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and the team believes if he had been healthy this past season he would have won 12-15 games. The emergence of fellow lefty Chuck James, however, and the return of another lefty, Mike Hampton, make it somewhat unlikely Ramirez will return in 2007.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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