The Dodgers want Hanley Ramirez to improve his defense.
Despite that commitment, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti wanted to see Ramirez improve his defense at shortstop.
According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Ramirez cost the Dodgers nearly four more runs on defense than the average player at the position.
In early December, Mattingly told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez that he felt Ramirez could make improvements, but added "We need him to put time in to be a better shortstop."
Here's where the problem has developed. Ramirez hasn't put in that time to become a better shortstop.
As Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register reports, a shoulder injury restricted Ramirez to playing designated hitter during winter ball in the Dominican. However, he won't be able to make up for that by playing plenty of shortstop during spring training.
Ramirez will play in the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic. With Jose Reyes and Erick Aybar on the roster, Ramirez doesn't figure to see any time at shortstop. Perhaps even worse, Ramirez won't play any third base either, because Adrian Beltre has that position locked down.
Playing as a designated hitter through most of March—depending on how far the Dominican Republic advances through the WBC—is not what the Dodgers had in mind for Ramirez this offseason.
As the Los Angeles Times' Steve Dilbeck points out, the Dominican Republic is favored to win the WBC and if their team gets to the championship game, Ramirez won't report back to the Dodgers until after March 19.
That gives him just over a week to practice before Opening Day on April 1.
Of course, Ramirez could take ground balls at shortstop during the WBC, but fielding grounders in practice isn't the same as doing so during a game. (Obviously, he could do both during spring training.) Besides, Reyes and Aybar figure to get most of the practice time time for the Dominican Republic.
This confirms the Dodgers' worst fears. Mattingly didn't want Ramirez to play in the WBC so he could concentrate on playing shortstop. But he understands Ramirez's desire to play in the tournament.
"It's hard to discourage a guy from playing for his country," Mattingly said to the OCR's Plunkett back in December. "If I could—if he would listen—I would certainly talk to him because we would like him to play short."
Should the Dodgers be rightfully concerned about Ramirez and his ability to play shortstop during the regular season?
The team does have options. Luis Cruz will likely play the position while Ramirez is absent from spring training. He should probably be the Dodgers' regular shortstop anyway, based on defense that FanGraphs' UZR measures at above-average.
Knowing that Cruz might have to play at shortstop frequently in Cactus League play might also explain the Dodgers' interest in free-agent third baseman Scott Rolen. According to the L.A. Times' Bill Shaikin, the Dodgers don't necessarily view Rolen as a starter for third base, but he could provide infield depth.
Colletti's approach since the Guggenheim Baseball Management group took over ownership of the team has been to stockpile talent and figure out how it all fits together later on. The roster is loaded with extra outfielders, utility infielders and starting pitchers right now.
Following that philosophy, perhaps the Dodgers would be taking a look at Rolen anyway. But would their interest be as strong if the team didn't have questions about Ramirez making any improvements at shortstop?
If that's the feeling in Chavez Ravine, Colletti isn't saying so publicly.
"I think it's great for him to be able to represent his country," Colletti told the Los Angeles Daily News' J.P. Hoornstra. "It's not like we're asking him to play a new position, being shortstop. He'll have plenty of time to be ready for the major league season."
However, Colletti likely knows that Ramirez is a player who has to be treated delicately.
Before getting traded to the Dodgers in July, Ramirez began the season as the Miami Marlins' third baseman. He had to switch positions to accommodate the jewel of the Marlins' offseason, free-agent shortstop Jose Reyes. But as the Miami Herald's Clark Spencer reported, Ramirez wasn't happy at all with the move.
The Dodgers likely fear a repeat of that situation in Los Angeles. Ramirez played shortstop after coming over from the Marlins, and the team surely accommodated his preferences to prevent upsetting clubhouse harmony.
But Ramirez's bat also justified him playing shortstop if that's what he wanted. He batted .271 with a .774 OPS, 10 home runs and 44 RBI in 272 plate appearances after joining the Dodgers. Few teams get that kind of offensive production from a position where defense is a priority.
The question now is whether or not the Dodgers will eventually emphasize defense at shortstop if Ramirez doesn't show the improvement the team was hoping to see from him. Will Mattingly make an issue of this or will Ramirez's offensive production obscure his defensive flaws?
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