Yasiel Puig snatched headlines and accolades with his furious debut season. Clayton Kershaw continued (and will continue) to dominate opposing hitters at a historic level. Juan Uribe stepped up, Adrian Gonzalez remained consistent and Kenley Jansen shut the door and shattered bats.
But nobody was more important to the Dodgers' stellar season last year than Ramirez.
In 86 games last year, Ramirez put on a clinic when it came to launching home runs or lacing doubles into the gap. He batted .345 with 25 doubles, 20 home runs, 57 RBI and 10 steals to boot. He finished eighth in MVP voting despite missing half the season. He had an outstanding 5.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), courtesy of FanGraphs, his best since 2009.
He had a profound impact at the third and fourth spots in the lineup, and his return from his first stint on the disabled list rejuvenated the Dodgers offense and made him a key component in their 46-10 stretch of dominance through the middle of the season.
His swing at times was worthy of a framed picture in the Museum of Modern Art or at least a video on constant rotation on the fancy Dodger Stadium video boards.
At 29 years old, Ramirez put up his most dazzling line since 2009, when he hit .342 and cranked out 24 homers with 106 RBI (and finished second in MVP voting, to Albert Pujols).
He proved that he was capable of swinging the bat like the game-changing shortstop he was when he broke into the league, but the lingering worry is that his gaudy numbers were quite the departure from his play over the last few seasons.
|Hanley Ramirez Stats, 2010-2013|
Those numbers from last season are indicative of his talent and potential but are incongruous with his recent production when you factor in the number of games played. The cartoonish .638 slugging percentage and .345 batting average are unlikely to stay.
There are only a few out there who would expect a carbon copy of his numbers last season, but the fact is that the Dodgers will look to Ramirez and Puig to lead the way on offense, and 2014 would prove to be an inopportune for Ramirez to regress to his career mean.
Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins and Alexei Ramirez are just three examples of contemporary shortstops whose statistics took a decline at or around the age of 30. If the Dodgers are to succeed, Ramirez must be able to stave off the same fate.
Ramirez has taken extra steps this offseason to remain in peak physical condition. According to Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com, he has been training with Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears, focusing on building up his fast-twitch muscle fibers.
This is an excellent course of action, as foot speed and bat speed are two traits that seem to irrevocably decline with age. The hope is this regimen will also allow him to retain his limited range at shortstop.
By looking at Ramirez's spray chart in 2013, courtesy of FanGraphs, we can see that he tended to pull on his ground balls and home runs (not unusual for a powerful righty), but that he was able to hit line drives to both the right-center and left-center gaps. His ability to go the opposite field will help him keep pitchers and fielders off balance in 2014.
The taxing position of shortstop is also a concern for any aging player. Not every shortstop can age as gracefully as Derek Jeter, and Ramirez may be susceptible to injury playing the majority of his games at that position.
The health concerns are there, as Ramirez was spectacular for but half a season in 2013, but they may not be quite as alarming as the chatter would have you think.
He has played at least 142 games or more in six of his eight full seasons, with last year and 2011 being the only two where he missed lots of playing time. Bad luck and bad timing may be more of a culprit for Ramirez's injuries than the steady march of time.
And then there is the looming contract issue. Manager Don Mattingly has assured Ken Gurnick of MLB.com that it will not be a distraction, as can be the case for some players. But for a player of Ramirez's age, the contract negotiations and possibilities of free agency can serve as more of a motivator for one final big payday.
In that same story, Mattingly even hinted to Gurnick at this underlying motivation, saying, "I do see this as a carrot. He knows at the end of the year if nothing happens, there are 30 teams. Nothing wrong with that. It's what free agency is all about."
There is plenty working against Ramirez for this upcoming season, but the early reports bode well for a continuation of his success.
Money talks, and the desire for Ramirez to prove himself to the Dodgers organization—as well as the rest of the league should the negotiations somehow fall through the Dodgers' bottomless reserves of cash—makes him a strong candidate to put up All-Star- and maybe MVP-caliber numbers in Chavez Ravine.
If this is the case, the Los Angeles Dodgers may be able to ride his production all the way to a World Series title.