Do Sox have big plans for another Ramirez?

I hope everyone had a happy, safe, and fulfilling Thanksgiving holiday.

In today's mailbag, we will focus on questions about shortstops and second basemen.

L.O.P. asks: Could you profile Red Sox shortstop Hanley Ramirez sometime? He has been compared to A-Rod when he was at this stage and obviously this interests me. I know he didn't have great numbers in Class A, but he's
still only 19.

I haven't talked much about Hanley Ramirez lately, so this is a good time for an update.

Ramirez had a mediocre season at Class A Augusta, hitting .275 with 24 doubles, eight homers, 36 steals, a .327 OBP, and a .403 SLG. This was considerably weaker than his .300+ averages and .500+ SLGs he put up in short-season ball.
His physical tools are still very impressive. He's one of the best pure athletes in baseball. But Ramirez lacks refinement. His plate discipline is mediocre, he is still error-prone on defense, and his power is still in the "needs development" category. None of that is damning for a guy who turns 20 in three weeks, but obviously he has work to do refining his skills.

Of greater concern than his numbers is his personality. He was suspended early in the year for several violations of team rules. Scouts say he doesn't work very hard, relying on pure athletic ability to carry him on the field. He can survive in A-ball that way, but at higher levels he will need a much stronger work ethic. He still has time to outgrow these problems, but he needs to make progress soon.

A-Rod comparisons are overblown. Ramirez is a good prospect, no question, but he's not A-Rod. At age 20, Rodriguez was already in major league baseball, not scuffling in the Sally League and irritating people with a poor attitude. Rodriguez hit .358 for the Seattle Mariners at age 20-21; Hanley is unlikely to do that in the Florida State League, let alone Boston anytime soon.

I don't mean to be too negative here, but Ramirez still has a lot to prove.

George from Trenton, N.J. writes: Is Victor Diaz, a player the Mets acquired from the Dodgers, any good?

A second baseman, Diaz was traded to the Mets in the Jeromy Burnitz deal this past July. The Dodgers got him in the 37th round in the 2000 draft, from a community college in Texas. He was born in the Dominican Republic, but grew up in the United States.

Diaz is a base-hit machine. He hit .354 in rookie ball in '01, then .350 in 91 games in the Sally League in '02. He split '03 between Jacksonville in the Southern League, where he hit .291 in 85 games, and Binghamton in the Double-A Eastern League, where he hit .354 in 45 games. All told, in 316 minor league games, he has a .318 average, a .371 OBP, and a .484 SLG. He knocked 16 homers this year with 31 doubles. He turns 22 on Dec. 10, making his performance in Double-A this year a very positive sign for his future.

He does have some weaknesses. Diaz doesn't command the strike zone especially well, and will never be a walk fanatic. But he makes contact even when behind in the count. Some scouts say his swing is awkward, but you can't argue with the results so far. He's a big guy and will have to watch his weight, plus there are worries about his defense. He is a marginal defensive player at second base, good enough if he keeps hitting like this, but not if he declines a bit with the bat. He may end up at first base eventually, which will increase the pressure on his hitting production.

I'm very intrigued with this guy's bat. He could end up as a consistent .300+ hitter at the major league level, with 20-homer power given a normal growth curve. But questions about his defense and physical conditioning will have to be addressed.

Bryant from Halifax, Nova Scotia, asks: Do you have an opinion about Blue Jays prospect Aaron Hill, their first-round pick in '03? I've noticed the Jays drafted a lot of college players last year. What do you think about that?

I discussed Hill during the June draft period, but let's take a look and see how he did in pro ball. The former LSU star hit .361 in 33 games in the New York-Penn League (.446 OBP, .492 SLG), which earned him a promotion to the Florida State League. He held his own at Dunedin, hitting .286 but with much less power (.345 SLG) in 32 games. All told, he hit .324 in his first 65 pro games, with 11 doubles, four homers, 27 walks, 30 strikeouts, .397 OBP, .419 SLG.

The Blue Jays love him, and see him as an intelligent, polished player who should move through the system quickly. He's a good athlete, though not on the same scale as Hanley Ramirez. I don't see Hill as a future superstar hitter, but rather as the solid, consistent type, someone who could hit .280 with a lot of doubles, on-base ability, and occasional home runs.

Hill is still a shortstop for now, but he may lack the range to play there in the long run, especially on artificial turf. He could end up at second base or third base down the road. I don't know if he'll have the pure home run power of the classic third-sacker, and my guess is that he'll eventually end up at second. He should move quickly, and we should see him in the Show sometime in 2005, or late 2004 if he gets off to a hot start next year.

As for the Jays drafting, they selected nothing but college guys last year, and many of them put in impressive pro debuts. Hill was good of course, but RHP Josh Banks (second round), 1B Vito Chiaravalotti (15th round), LHP Kurt Isenberg (fourth round), RHP Jamie Vermylea (ninth round), and RHP Tom Mastny (11th round) all had strong performances in their initial pro exposures. We need to see them at higher levels, but this looks like a good draft to me.

On a philosophical basis, I would probably have mixed a few high schoolers in myself. I think drafts should lean to the college side, but it's possible to overdo it. All things in moderation, said Aristotle. But it's hard to argue with the early results of this group.

Fred T. from Covington, Ky. writes: The Reds have a second baseman named Habelito Hernandez at the rookie level who looks good. He hit .377 in the Pioneer League. When will he make it to Cincinnati?

Hernandez missed part of the year with a shoulder injury, but when he did play he was hard to get out, hitting .377 with a .392 OBP and a .673 (!) SLG at Billings in the Pioneer League. It was just 36 games, but the performance was outstanding, especially considering that he'd hit just .235 in rookie ball the previous season.

The Reds signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2000. Obviously he can hit for average, but there are some warning signs. In 162 at-bats, he fanned 22 times, which isn't bad. But he drew just one walk. He swings at everything. It is to his credit that he makes contact and can drive the ball, but plate discipline this poor will be a serious handicap at higher levels. I'm not saying he has to turn into Adam Dunn, but at least marginal command of the zone will be needed as he moves up.

I know I harp on strike zone judgment a lot. Some people have asked me if it's possible for a player to be too patient at the plate. And the answer to that is, yes, some players are too passive. Dunn may be one of those. But Hernandez is the other extreme. Not everyone has to draw a lot of walks, but pitch recognition is a critical skill, and it is very difficult to become a successful hitter if you can't tell the difference between a ball and a strike, a fastball and a curve. It's never been a big secret, but sometimes the simplest ideas take a long time to sink in.

John Sickels is the author of the 2004 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered only at his website, johnsickels.com. He is also the author of Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, which will be released just before Christmas by Brassey's. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.