Ramon Ramirez, the righthanded relief pitcher the Red Sox acquired from the Kansas City Royals this morning for center fielder Coco Crisp, might be a mystery to Boston fans right now. But if general manager Theo Epstein proves correct, the unheralded but remarkably effective 27-year-old will make a name for himself here soon enough.
“In Ramirez, we believe we’ve acquired a young, controllable reliever that can really help our bullpen,” Epstein said during a conference call this afternoon to discuss the deal.
“He has a plus fastball, 92 to 95 miles per hour, and an outstanding power changeup. A lot of people think it’s a split, it’s actually a changeup, 87 to 88. That’s a swing-and-miss pitch for him against lefthanded and righthanded hitters, and a pretty good slider. He’s very quietly had a tremendous amount of success in the major leagues over the last two seasons. We were looking for that type of upgrade to add to our bullpen.”
Ramirez (pictured) is coming off a quietly excellent 2008 season, having posted a 2.64 ERA in 71.2 innings while striking out 70. He allowed just two home runs, and held righthanders to a .153 average in 137 at-bats, the lowest in the AL and third in majors among pitchers with at least 50 games. Only the Cubs’ Carlos Marmol (.103) and Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge (.105) ranked higher. In his career, Ramirez has held righties to a .198 clip with an OPS of .586. He was particularly effective in September, allowing just one earned run and four hits in 9.2 innings (0.93 ERA).
Ramirez, who has little more than a year of service time and is not yet arbitration eligible, made $397,000 last season, a bargain given his production. Should he pitch as well with the Red Sox, his arrival will have another benefit — allowing the club to use versatile Justin Masterson as a starter if it so chooses.
“[Ramirez] does give us the flexibility to start Masterson if that does end up being what we feel is in the best interests of the ball club,” Epstein said. “[Both dominate righties], in that way Ramirez could potentially replace Masterson in the ‘pen. It’s not easy to find a [cost-controlled] reliever with a good track record and plus stuff.”
Ramirez, who originally signed with the Texas Rangers as an outfielder at age 15 in 1996, debuted in the majors in 2006 with the Colorado Rockies after he was acquired from the Yankees for pitcher Shaun Chacon. He posted a 3.46 ERA in 67.2 innings over 61 appearances as a Rockies rookie, and did not allow a run in his first 15.1 innings.
He struggled with an elbow injury in ’07, going 2-2 with an 8.31 ERA in 22 games. He was not on the Rockies’ World Series roster against the Red Sox, but said this afternoon that he is looking forward to coming to Boston now.
“It’s a new experience for me to be able to play on a contending club. I know that Boston is going to be in it, as they have in previous years,” Ramirez said, speaking through a translator on a conference call. “I couldn’t be happier right now. I’m ecstatic.”
For Crisp, 29, it was the end of a three-year run with the Red Sox, one that didn’t quite live up to expectations after he was acquired in a deal that sent catcher Kelly Shoppach, among others, to the Cleveland Indians after the 2005 season.
“I think when we acquired Coco, he was coming of an age 25 season in which he posted impressive numbers,” Epstein said, while emphasizing how impressive Crisp’s defense became in 2007. “For whatever reasons, those trend lines didn’t continue with us. Injuries played a factor and the ballpark played a factor. Right field took a lot of home runs away from Coco [at Fenway]. He didn’t necessarily make all the [offensive] strides that we had hoped for.”
Crisp did have arguably his best season in Boston in 2008, batting .283 — .315 in the second half — with seven homers, 41 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 361 at-bats. He shared the job in center field with rookie Jacoby Ellsbury during the regular season, starting 98 games. Crisp started five games in the American League Championship Series loss to the Rays, batting .450 and delivering a memorable game-tying hit in Game 5 as the Red Sox rallied from a 7-0 deficit.
Trading Crisp clears roughly $6 million in payroll this season, according to Epstein. The outfielder will earn $5.7 million in 2009, with a club option for 2010 for $8 million or a $500,000 buyout.
It’s likely that the Red Sox will now be looking outside the organization for a righthanded-hitting fourth outfielder. Rocco Baldelli, the Rhode Island native and former Tampa Bay Ray, might be one possibility.
The deal was first reported this morning on Kansas City sports radio station WHB 810 by Brian McRae, a former Royals outfielder who is a part owner of the station.
Amalie Benjamin and Nick Cafardo of the Globe staff contributed to this report.