Baseball scouts go to great lengths to avoid the phrase "sure thing." So many factors can prevent a talented prospect from maturing into a skilled pro that scouts know better than to make predictions with certainty.
But before he was 20, Hanley Ramirez was making people all over baseball drool.
In 2000, he signed with Boston as a 16-year-old kid out of a peninsula town in the Dominican Republic. He spent one short season in the Dominican Summer League before the Red Sox brought him stateside to the Gulf Coast League. By 2002, Baseball America had named him the No. 1 prospect in the New York-Penn League and described him as a "can't-miss" player.
Mike Boulanger, who managed the Lowell Spinners that year, told the magazine, "He's the best player in this league, and the best prospect in the Red Sox organization. He can do everything. He's got a feel for the game you can't teach. You could put him in Triple-A right now and he'd fit in."
There's never been a question of ability in Ramirez, but he spent six years toiling in the Minor Leagues before he was ready for a regular starting job in "The Show." Considering
his natural talent, one question comes to mind: what took so long?
"There were challenges there," said Todd Claus, who managed Ramirez with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs in 2005. "Hanley had to deal with things that most Minor Leaguers don't have to deal with."
Claus never doubted that his shortstop -- by then one of the most touted players in the Minors -- was as good as everybody said he was, but he knew Ramirez would need to get over certain humps if he was to blossom into the player he was capable of becoming.
"A lot of people expected him to play like he plays now, based on his athletic ability," said Claus, who's now an assistant coach at Jacksonville University.
But Ramirez was still young. It wasn't easy for him to reconcile the attention he received as a top prospect with the smaller crowds that would sometimes come to watch him play.
"We were trying to get him not to worry about the limelight. Any time the stage got big, Hanley played big. He played well every time he was being watched," Claus said. "But he needed to learn to play well consistently, all the time, even if there were only 100 people in the stands."
Chad Spann, who played alongside Ramirez for the Augusta GreenJackets in 2003, remembers that team attracting extra media attention too.
"There was a lot of hype," Spann said, adding that some games caused more hubbub than others. "He and B.J. Upton -- at the time [Upton] was a shortstop too -- were both [in the league]. When we played against each other, there was a big writeup in Baseball America and everything."
Spann noted that Ramirez was often spectacular on defense, but he occasionally botched easy grounders.
"He did make some unbelievable plays. He made routine errors, but he also made some amazing plays look routine."
While Ramirez's swing was powerful and smooth that year, he didn't produce the way he projected to, hitting .275 with eight home runs and 50 RBIs in 111 South Atlantic League games.
"If you'd watched him taking batting practice that season, you wouldn't have thought there was anything he needed to improve on," Spann said. "But he got more consistent the next year and even more consistent the year after that, which showed that that's what he needed to do: work on his consistency."
By the time Ramirez reached Claus' Double-A club in 2005, the hype had swelled and most serious fans knew who he was. But Boston had signed Edgar Renteria to play shortstop, putting a question mark on Ramirez's future with the organization.
Coming into that season, Claus said, "Hanley was working on adjusting to become a real professional," and the adjustment was sometimes a challenge.
But Ramirez, by now 21, began to show maturity, taking advantage of Renteria's presence on the club.
"He went to Spring Training that year, and it was great for him to be around the consummate professional that Edgar is," said Claus. "Renteria's a guy who's had a great Major League career and plays the game the right way. He took Hanley under his wing. [Ramirez] worked hard with Renteria, and he learned a lot from him. He took it as a great opportunity."
As Renteria's tutelage was instrumental in getting Ramirez to make a crucial mental acclimation to pro ball, Claus hammered home the on-the-field lessons.
"We worked a lot with him on putting the fundamentals together," he said. "He never put up the numbers early on that his ability dictated he could put up, but as he became more fundamentally strong -- in the batter's box, with his footwork, with his glove, with everything -- it started to come together."
"Fundamentals" was a key word for Claus when he was dealing with his shortstop. It's easy for a player who's understood he's a top prospect since adolescence to get ahead of himself or try to do too much, Claus pointed out.
"He didn't have the power numbers in the Minors. A lot of guys don't, but it was always expected of Hanley. Power hitters are good hitters first," he said. "Hanley had to learn to become a good hitter, not to go up there and try to hit a home run every time. He learned to be a good hitter, to hit to all fields, and now he's a power hitter."
Defensively too, Ramirez began to develop a more solid approach under the guidance of Claus and Boston player development personnel.
"We had him working a lot on keeping a wide base, keeping his footwork sharp. [Red Sox staffers] Craig Shipley and Perry Hill were a big part of [Ramirez's improvement].
"We just tried to get him as fundamentally sound as we could. Now, he puts himself in a position to make the best play on the ball on every play, and that's something he didn't always do. He had to work on that."
Even though Ramirez had a lot to learn and was under intense scrutiny from an early age, he had one thing that he could always count on, Claus said.
"Athletic ability second to none. He always had athletic ability, and he's really putting it all together now."
In the offseason following the 2005 campaign, the Red Sox shipped Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado and Harvey Garcia to the Marlins for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota. The blockbuster trade afforded Ramirez the chance to play in the Majors, and he won the Florida starting shortstop job out of Spring Training.
"Let me tell you, before I signed I didn't know they paid you for playing baseball," Ramirez told the Miami Herald before the 2006 season. "I played because I loved the game. It was incredible when they told me they were going to sign me and they were going to give me money."
Relying on that love of the game and the lessons he learned during his transition from prodigy to professional, Ramirez has developed into one of the best players in baseball. This year he hit .342, becoming the first shortstop to win a National League batting title since Dick Groat did it in 1960, and he knocked in 106 runs, marking the first time he's reached triple digits in the RBIs category.
"He can hit the ball for power from corner to corner in any ballpark. He has more tools than I have," Albert Pujols told MLB.com.
High praise from such a source might put extra pressure on some, but Ramirez spent his whole Minor League career learning to play above the hype, to play with his heart.
Minor League career breakdown
2001: Playing for the Red Sox Dominican Summer League team at 17, Ramirez hit .345 with 25 extra-base hits and 34 RBIs in 54 games in his first season as a pro. He also flashed his speed, swiping 13 bags in 17 attempts.
2002:In his first season in the United States, the 18-year-old Ramirez led the Gulf Coast League with a .555 slugging percentage, was second with a .341 average and third with six home runs. He was selected to the GCL All-Star team and named a Baseball America Rookie League All-Star. |
2002:In 22 games with the New York-Penn League's Lowell Spinners, Ramirez hit .371 and drove in 19 runs and scored 17. His five-tool makeup became crystal clear to all, and Baseball America called him the league's best prospect.|
2003:Playing a season of more than 100 games for the first time, Ramirez's average dropped off a touch. He hit .275 for the Augusta GreenJackets of the South Atlantic League, but he slapped 35 extra-base hits and stole 36 bases.|
2004: Ramirez hit .310, stole 12 bases and scored 33 runs in 62 games with the Class A Advanced Sarasota Red Sox of the Florida State League. He had only one homer, but his consistency earned him a chance to play at the Double-A level. ... Playing 32 games for the Eastern League's Portland Sea Dogs, hit .310 and swiped 12 bags in 15 attempts. He homered five times and legged out a pair of triples. |
2005: In his final season in the Minors, Ramirez played in 122 games, again with the Portland Sea Dogs. He had 21 doubles, seven triples, six home runs, 52 RBIs and stole 26 bases. He played the best defense of his Minor League career, making 22 errors in 506 total chances at shortstop.|