FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hanley Ramirez will be a capable first baseman if he chooses to be. So far he has chosen to be. Granted, he's probably a little tired of talking about it, which would explain why his expression wobbles between bemusement and exasperation at its mention.
"I got the hands and I got the feet," he says and really all he wants to say, because it's still a baseball game after all, only standing in a different place with a larger glove, and it's a way to have him in the middle of the Boston Red Sox's lineup while the Red Sox make good on the $66 million (or $88 million, with the vesting option) he's still got coming and David Ortiz exhausts his career.
A year ago Ramirez was taking the same inquiries about playing left field, a season that concluded with him, according to most eyes and metrics, being the worst left fielder in the game. The year before he was the third-worst shortstop, and a couple years before that was 44th out of 57 third basemen, this according to analytics that apparently don't much care where he stands.
It's peculiar, too, because he's big, strong and athletic, and in the batter's box is an exceedingly natural ballplayer. That doesn't always translate, but even a reasonable big-league shortstop is among the better athletes on the field. Here he is, though, trying to make sense of first base while the Red Sox overhaul Pablo Sandoval's game at third base and then while the organization digs out from another last-place finish.
Ramirez seems to have taken to the position as much as he could two weeks into March. He's engaged. When it's been time for starters to leave games, Ramirez has asked to remain for another inning or two. You know, it's one thing to be on an 84-loss Red Sox team, another to wear a lot of the public rancor for it. When you're supposed to be part of the solution and instead teeter around in left field, miss fifty-some games and bat .249, well, it's fair to assume Pablo Sandoval had company on the lips of those disappointed Red Sox fans.
Those close to Ramirez say he worked harder this offseason than he had in years. He appears leaner, which maybe is a start. He is 32 years old, a bit young to have his body be anything but what he needs it to be. More, he seems to think first base is a way better idea than left field, and where the head goes the body should follow.
"I think he's felt comfortable coming back to the infield," Red Sox manager John Farrell said, "and being involved in the mix, being involved in the game each and every pitch.
"I think Hanley's come back into camp with a completely different mindset in a lot of ways."
If he brought his bat and can stay upright and is just average at first base, the Red Sox will be better for it, of course. He may not require a glove of any kind after this year, given 600 plate appearances open up at designated hitter next year when Ortiz will be retired. That's assuming Sandoval is better at third base than Ramirez is at first, which is an opinion for another day, but those defensive metrics so unkind to Ramirez weren't any fonder of Sandoval.
This is what happens when one desperate winter gets going sideways on you, when what's left is to coach 'em up, fix it, make 'em better ballplayers and find new solutions with the same old guys. By opening day. No less an authority than Alex Rodriguez, who once dabbled at first base for just long enough to realize only bad things would happen there, judged Ramirez's early work favorably.
"For me it was the most challenging thing I ever – I'm not going to say did, I'm going to say tried to do," he said. "I couldn't even catch the ball. The game was backwards for me. … But he looks good."
Farrell said Ramirez is already better at first base than he was by the regular season in left field. In the end, there'd be no rational reason Ramirez couldn't play first base, given he's gone most of his life playing baseball just the way the Red Sox are asking him to now. As long as he wants to, as long as it's important to him, as long as he forgives himself when the goofy stuff happens, he can play first base.
As he pointed out, he's got the hands and he's got the feet. It's a start.
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