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Erasmo Ramirez is the Ben Zobrist of pitchers

A letter of appreciation for the Rays’ rubber arm.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the demotion of Blake Snell, Erasmo Ramirez will be moving back into the Rays’ starting rotation. The 27-year-old has been with the Rays each of the past three seasons after an offseason trade with the Seattle Mariners brought Ramirez over to Tampa Bay in exchange for Mike Montgomery (now in Chicago) on March 31, 2015. During his time with the Rays, Ramirez has been, for lack of a better word, perfect.

Ramirez has obviously allowed runs here and there, and it’s not even as if his 3.68 ERA over the past three seasons is the best on the roster, as four Rays pitchers with at least 100 innings have a lower ERA (Alex Colome, Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer, and Nate Karns). His 20-17 record is a bit better than the team winning percentage over that time, but it’s not out of this world, and who looks at wins and losses to judge a player these days anyway?

No, Ramirez has been perfect because he has been the Ben Zobrist of the pitching world - the ideal utility pitcher.

When he was first acquired, it was to be a starter. Ramirez pitched in 47 games in Seattle, and 35 of those games came as a starter. Naturally, 27 of his 34 games in 2015 came as a starter for the Rays. He posted a 3.51 ERA in his 27 starts compared to a 6.75 ERA in seven games as a reliever that first season, but heading into 2016, Ramirez found himself in the bullpen because thanks to the Rays’ schedule to start the season, they could go with a four-man rotation. Once the schedule called for a fifth, it was “young guns” Matt Andriese and Blake Snell getting the call for the fifth spot. (Never mind that Andriese and Ramirez are the same age.)

Ramirez kept his head down and did the dirty work out of the pen, though, making appearances in a team-high 64 games, 36 of which were more than the now-typical three-out reliever appearance. Most outings were around two innings, making his workload of 64 games all the more impressive. As a result, he ended up fifth on the team in innings pitched (90.2), and he had the second-lowest ERA of that top five in innings pitched for Tampa Bay. He made only one start, and, naturally, he threw five and two-thirds shutout innings before sliding right back in the bullpen without so much as a complaint. In fact, he sounded downright excited just to be there, telling Gary Shelton of the Saint Peters Blog before the season:

“I just go execute, and no matter what situation in the game it is. I just want the chance to compete. That’s what I’m looking for, and they gave me the chance from the bullpen, starting, I don’t care. I just want to go there and help the team.

“They’re going to let me know what day I have my chance to start and (until) that time I’ll just be in the bullpen doing my best, and whatever situation it is, I just want to go and execute pitches. That’s my point and wait for my chance, whenever it is.”

It’s no surprise to those watching that Shelton began his article saying of Ramirez, “[Ramirez] is always smiling, always happy. For Erasmo Ramirez, every day is a good one.” His impressive success in the pen in 2016 led to articles calling for league-wide Erasmo Ramirez’s and meant he was likely to stay in the bullpen in 2017.

And so far, that’s mostly what Erasmo has done. He filled in admirably once again in his lone spot start (5 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 5 K), but mostly he has been used for longer out of the pen, topping the one-inning threshold in six of his 11 relief appearances, and he is once again leading Tampa Bay relievers in innings pitched (if his five-inning start is included, which it should be). Only Jake Odorizzi has a better ERA among pitchers on the Rays with as many innings, and no Rays’ pitcher with at least 10 innings has as strong an xFIP as Ramirez (3.39).

Now, thanks to the Blake Snell Experience taking a turn south, Ramirez will be back in the Rays’ rotation. Given how much the Rays have invested in Snell’s future, this could simply be a warning shot, and the young lefty could be back after just a couple starts at Durham, sending Ramirez back to the bullpen for the time being — but that’s the thing with Ramirez, it won’t be an issue.

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

His versatility to be used as a long-relief man (four shutout innings in the Rays’ extra-inning loss to the Orioles on April 26), or as a high-leverage arm (two perfect innings with four strikeouts in the most recent win over Boston on Sunday), or as a starter (the aforementioned win over the Tigers), is unflappable. Ramirez can do it all.

Better yet, Erasmo Ramirez does it all with a smile and a joie de vivre that only makes the whole process even smoother and speaks even further to his value with the club.

His utility to the Rays roster is to be celebrated. Erasmo Ramirez is the perfect utility man; he just happens to be a pitcher.