When spring training started for the Boston Red Sox just about a month ago, there was very little confidence among fans and analysts that Hanley Ramirez would be able to handle another position change to first in 2016. It was tough to imagine Hanley holding down a position where he would be involved in the game constantly. Left field was a disaster last season for Ramirez, and he gave no indication that another move on the diamond could be remotely successful.
Throughout his career, Ramirez has rightfully earned the reputation for being lackadaisical. People across the league saw it last year in his attempts to track fly balls, and they saw it in the past when he was benched with the Miami Marlins for lack of hustle. Boston fans aren’t the same as Miami fans though, and it seems like Hanley has started to remember that. After watching how Pablo Sandoval has been ridiculed constantly for his struggles on the field and with weight, it’s no surprise Hanley has begun to pick it up this spring. The real test for Hanley won’t begin until the regular season rolls around, but he’s already beginning to prove doubters wrong. There won’t be many chances left for Hanley in 2016 to live up to that contract because fan favorite Travis Shaw is sitting right behind him.
Hitting stats are tough to put any faith into during spring training. The level of competition changes dramatically on a day-to-day basis, and the wind in a place like Fort Myers can make it easy for quite a few fly balls to drop for hits or fly over the fence. Hanley is hitting .296 across 27 at-bats right now, but that isn’t the part of his hitting performance to pay attention too. Ramirez has altered both his swing and approach a little bit. He now keeps both hands on the bat throughout his swing, and it seems like he isn’t just aiming to hit homers while at the plate anymore.
The talk of April last season in Boston, was the fact that Ramirez hit the ball harder than anyone had seen before. At one point, he even put a hole in Fenway’s center field padding during batting practice. It’s easy to forget after how bad 2015 was, that Ramirez hit 10 home runs during April and was looking like a force at the plate. He seemed to go power crazy for a bit, and it worked for that month. But one he collided with the wall in May and lost that power due to a shoulder injury, he became lost with a bat in his hands. He would finish the 2015 season with an ugly .249 batting average, and a disappointing 19 home runs.
Hopefully, Hanley’s new line-drive approach at the plate will put him on a path towards success in 2016. It was just a few years ago in 2013, that Hanley showed how dominant he could be at the plate with the Los Angeles Dodgers by hitting .343 in 83 games. During this span, Hanley was able to put an entire team on his back with just the production of his bat. All the potential is there, he just needs to find that level of consistently. If he is able to correct that part of his game, he shouldn’t have any problems living up to the four-year $88 million dollar deal he agreed to, prior to 2015.
Defensively, Hanley is looking like a new ballplayer. After slimming down this offseason in order to gain some agility back, he’s looking comfortable at first. He’s shown the ability to stretch for the ball on close plays, and it has reminded people that yes, this guy did use to play shortstop. He’s made some routine picks at first too, and even dove to snag a few shots destined for the right-field corner. On top of that, the footwork and his positioning on cutoffs has been solid throughout. Third base coach Brian Butterfield’s help and coaching has been huge during this position change. He has had Ramirez practicing early in the backfields almost every day of workouts. Butterfield has helped Hanley stay confident at his new position as well, because the former left fielder has shown complete confidence whenever being asked about how the position change is going. Positive signs like these are refreshing to see for Hanley, because after 2015, it had seemed like he was destined to either fill in at DH or sit on the bench until David Ortiz retired.
The 2016 season is a huge one for the Boston Red Sox as they work to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2013. After an offseason full of huge moves in order to prepare this roster for a World Series run, they cannot afford to fall flat again. Health will be key towards Boston finding consistency, and Hanley Ramirez will play a big part in evading that issue. If he can solidify one this team’s biggest question marks at first base, while allowing them to keep their great depth on the bench, all signs point towards Beantown making some noise again in the AL East.