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Hanley Ramirez Can Be a Potent Cleanup Hitter for Red Sox

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2015

Newly Acquired Boston Red Sox free agent infielder Hanley Ramirez responds to a reporter's question after being introduced to the media at Fenway Park Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Boston. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

Having a Ramirez hitting cleanup has worked out well for the Boston Red Sox in the past.

They plan to do it again in 2015, hoping another Ramirez from the Dominican Republic can serve as lineup protection for David Ortiz while smacking the ball all around Fenway Park. Sox manager John Farrell is likely to hit newly acquired Hanley Ramirez in the No. 4 spot this upcoming season, something he noted to Boston radio station WEEI earlier this month.

Assuming Ramirez’s mental and physical health are in line, he still certainly has the talent to bring Red Sox fans back to a time when Manny Ramirez occupied that spot in the batting order behind Big Papi for the majority of four full seasons (2004 through 2007).

The decision is obviously a strategic one for Farrell, who now has one of the deeper lineups in the American League a season after seeing his team score 634 runs, the franchise’s lowest total since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

CHARLES KRUPA/Associated Press

“I think Hanley gives David some protection behind him,” Farrell said on WEEI’s Arbella Hot Stove Show. “Then you start to create some protection and we want to keep [Pablo] Sandoval on the left side of the plate as much as possible, so if you sandwich him in between Ramirez and [Mike] Napoli you start to have a formidable middle of the order where you’re going left-right-left-right all the way through there.”

Napoli took the majority of the at-bats (325 plate appearances) in Boston’s cleanup spot last year, and Yoenis Cespedes took some of those plate appearances (170) once he was acquired from Oakland in the Jon Lester trade. Ortiz also dropped down for 151 PAs in the fourth slot.

As a team, Boston’s cleanup production was nowhere near what a team would like from its No. 4 hitters. A total of 12 players batted .250/.343/.420 with a .763 OPS, 22 home runs and 93 RBIs. Eight of those homers and 29 of those RBIs came from Ortiz, who Farrell would prefer to hit third.

Hanley Ramirez, who signed with the Red Sox in November for four years and a guaranteed $88 million, has taken 566 career plate appearances from the cleanup spot. He took the majority of his appearances from the leadoff spot (1,869) earlier in his career and the No. 3 spot (2,129) later. While the batting position might be a bit unfamiliar for Ramirez, there should be no doubt that he can handle the job.

Ramirez is coming off a down season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, at least by the standards he has set. He hit .283/.369/.448 with an .817 OPS and 132 OPS-plus, but he hit just 13 home runs in 512 plate appearances. Only two of those homers came after the All-Star Break, and his OPS dropped from .836 in the first half to .781 in the second.

Ramirez’s contract situation may have weighed on him during last season. It was the first “contract year” of his career. It was the first time he was ever entering free agency and without a contract for the following season.

Ramirez was also aware of constant criticisms about his poor defense at shortstop and was part of the Dodgers’ less-than-ideal clubhouse dynamic. Manager Don Mattingly recently told Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times he sent text messages to Ramirez several times during the season in attempts to get hold of his shortstop, but Ramirez never responded.

Mattingly, among others, believed Ramirez's pending free agency played a role in his down production.

Mattingly thought Hanley was affected by contract status.

— Dylan Hernandez (@dylanohernandez) October 9, 2014

“He's got many other things he's thinking about, including the contractual situation,” then-general manager Ned Colletti told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times last season. “We all keep waiting for the day he gets out of it.”

Ramirez’s slate is clean in Boston. He has his contract, he knows he will be playing a new position—left field, like Manny—and he has a chance to make a positive impression in a new clubhouse much the way he did when during his first couple seasons with the Dodgers.

Also, let us not forget that Ramirez is not far removed from being one of the game’s elite all-around hitters. Despite being slowed down by a thumb ligament injury and a nagging hamstring strain, Ramirez torched National League pitching in 2013. He hit .345/.402/.638 with a 1.040 OPS, 189 OPS-plus and 20 home runs in 336 plate appearances (86 games). He was the Dodgers’ most valuable offensive player and finished eighth in MVP voting despite missing so much time.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

That is the Ramirez the Red Sox are paying for. It is that version of this one-time Boston farmhand who can lift the Red Sox offense from the gutter to lethal. Boston believes it will get that Ramirez in 2015.

“He is a fantastic player, as far as I’m concerned,” Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis told Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com last week. “I want to say I want to be pleasantly surprised [this season], but it’s not that anything he does is going to surprise me. But I’d like to see him just come out and have just an overall consistent season, just wowing you.

“I don’t even look at his numbers [last year]. I mean, just a talented player, great approach, great right-handed swing and he has the ability to hit .300-plus, drive the ball and drive in runs. He’s a complete player. I mean how old is he? 31? He’s still young.”

He is also still a potent offensive weapon when healthy and tranquil. With here-and-there chances to DH and playing a small left field at Fenway, Ramirez can stay healthy. And with his new contract and in a new clubhouse with friend and fellow countryman Ortiz, Ramirez’s psyche can be at peace.

Boston’s new Ramirez in the cleanup spot still has the ability to impact the Red Sox like the old one.

Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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