At the tender age of 27, Hanley Ramirez is no longer the Miami Marlins shortstop of the future.
So reads the fine print on Miami’s high-priced and successful pursuit of free agent shortstop Jose Reyes.
Just a year removed from a five-year run as the best shortstop in baseball—his 29.3 WAR over that period was nearly eight points higher than second-place finisher Derek Jeter—the public face of a franchise on the brink of relevancy has been asked to take a big step back.
No longer will Ramirez play the highest profile position in baseball, just as he no longer represents the Marlins' largest and longest-term financial commitment. Both those distinctions now belong to Reyes.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
As his franchise emerged from the shadows, Ramirez seemed slated to follow suit. The superstar obscured for years by empty orange seats and listless supporting casts was supposed to finally get his day in the South Florida sun.
Except that he won’t, obscured this time by the man who used to wear an increasingly empty orange (and blue) jersey.
So where to now, Hanley Ramirez?
That question, on its surface, is one of baseball strategy.
What position will new manager Ozzie Guillen ask Ramirez to play? What quadrant of Marlins Ballpark will Ramirez reluctantly defend?
The obvious answer is third base, where other deposed shortstops like Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez relocated and where the Marlins fielded a lackluster rotation of replacement-level talent in 2011.
Such a solution would, however, block top prospect Matt Dominguez’s path to the major leagues and significantly devalue Ramirez’s offensive contributions.
Or so says a long-circulating theory that Ramirez would fit best as a center fielder, a position that would similarly value his offensive production and where his speed would serve as an asset.
But I think the more interesting question is less about production and more about Ramirez’s legacy.
I can’t remember another instance in which a franchise forced an All-Star player to change positions as he entered his physical prime. More poignantly, I can’t imagine that ever happening to a face-of-the-franchise shortstop.*
Ripken was 36 when the Orioles relegated him to the hot corner. Rodriguez was the same age as Ramirez, with the crucial caveat that he willingly accepted a new defensive assignment as part of his trade to a contender.
But not Hanley. At age 27, he’s been shoved aside in a most public way.
One wonders how Ramirez, long regarded as petulant, will react.
How will a player ticketed by some for the Hall of Fame respond to the Marlins’ changing loyalties? How will he accept a demotion made in deference to team goals?
We’ve reached an indisputable crossroads in Ramirez’s career, and however he answers the above questions will largely define his place in the history of this game.
If he does and says all the right things (he will), if he performs at a high level (he should) and if the team meets with sustained success (a less certain proposition), Ramirez could go down as the greatest Marlin in franchise history.
If any of those hypotheticals run afoul, we may someday wonder about all the things Ramirez could have been, but never was.
Where to now, Hanley Ramirez?
Facing the first real roadblock in your charmed career, which way will you turn?
*Ernie Banks is a possible exception here, though he was 31 when he moved, and I think we can all admit the media climate was a bit different in 1962.