As Hanley Ramirez learns to play first base, he has to hit again, too

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A few weeks before spring training began, at the Boston Red Sox's annual winter festival at Foxwoods Resort Casino, Hanley Ramirez was asked if he'd be interested in becoming a designated hitter once David Ortiz retires.

"Hell yeah," he said.

It was a moment of unbridled honesty, to say nothing of a window into how Ramirez may be approaching his latest positional switch. The 32-year-old realizes he must be a passable first baseman for the sake of the pitching staff and his fellow infielders. But with Ortiz planning to step away after this season, he also knows this whole first-base thing could be merely a one-year gig until he can focus all his energy on what he really likes to do: Mash.

And that would be all well and good but for one teeny, tiny detail: Ramirez is coming off the worst offensive season of his career.

In some ways, it was the most underplayed aspect of Boston's disappointing 2015. Ramirez was a train wreck in left field, ranking as the majors' third-worst defender by costing his team 19 runs, according to Baseball Info Solutions. But he was nearly as lost at the plate. After bashing 10 home runs in April, he hit only nine the rest of the season and none after the All-Star break. He notched a career-low 12 doubles and slugged .426, tied for 56th among 100 American Leaguers with at least 425 plate appearances.

It was a stunning lack of production for a player who was offered a four-year, $88 million contract because of the power in his bat. Defense has never been Ramirez's strong suit, even at his natural shortstop position. He could always hit, though, entering last season as one of 10 active players with a .500 or better slugging percentage over at least 1,000 games.

So, while the Sox cross their fingers that Ramirez will be acceptable at first base, they're even more hopeful that last season wasn't the beginning of a decline in his offense.

"If he comes out and he's Hanley Ramirez, anywhere close to the Hanley Ramirez from when he was younger, he's going to do a lot of damage in this league and he's going to help this team be a better ballclub," hitting coach Chili Davis said. "If he's consistent with good contact, the numbers are going to show up. That's just the way it is."

More than anything, Davis chalks up Ramirez's struggles last season to two factors: a series of freak injuries that began in early May when he crashed into a wall in foul territory in left field and strained his left shoulder, and the distraction of having to play a new position and not being any good at it.

And the worse things got for Ramirez, the harder it was for Davis to help him. It wasn't that Ramirez was uncoachable, Davis says, but rather that he was set in his ways after nearly a decade as a successful major league hitter.

"Some relationships you can build right away, and that's based on trust," Davis said. "But when you've got a player like Hanley, and even Papi [Ortiz], these guys have done some stuff in their career. So for me to walk in, the last thing I want is them to feel like I was changing them. A lot of times with players like that you need to kind of sit back and listen, and instead of taking giant leaps to get to know them, you take little, smaller steps. I had to be a little more cautious in how I approached him because he knew where he was trying to get to."

By now, though, Davis believes he has gained Ramirez's trust. And over the past few weeks, he and assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez have asked Ramirez to try keeping both hands on the bat as he finishes his swing, a departure from his longstanding approach. By doing so, they think it will result in a more compact swing that allows Ramirez to connect with pitches that are down and away, a zone in which he was vulnerable last season.

So far, at least, so good. Ramirez has been making more consistent, hard contact in the early spring training games.

"Hopefully I don't run into the wall anymore, too."
Hanley Ramirez, on coming back from a disastrous 2015

“We’re just trying to find our timing, nice and easy, and try to be short, and let the ball travel a little," Ramirez said. "Just one swing and one click and then you’re right there. That’s what I need. It's early. We’ve got to continue to work.”

Said Davis of the two-handed approach: "He believes in it, he's worked on it, and it's working for him right now. It keeps him on the ball longer. It keeps him using the whole field. I like it. I think he's done a real good job with it. There's some point where it'll probably get back to where he's finishing with the one-hand finish, but just by doing this, it's something he can always go back to. I think it'll help his natural swing."

So, too, Davis says, will Ramirez's return to the infield. Even though he's learning to play first base, it figures to be an easier transition than left field for a natural shortstop.

And although injuries have been a recurring issue for Ramirez, limiting him to an average of 114 games per season since 2011, the Sox hope their offseason mandate that he drop a few pounds in order to increase his agility will help keep him healthy.

"Hopefully I don't run into the wall anymore, too," Ramirez said.

Said Davis: "I think that affected his year a lot. He was on pace to have a really, really good year. I think after he came back and tried to get back to where he was and it didn't happen soon enough, the at-bats started compiling, and I think the frustration from that and the fact that he was playing in an unnatural position, I think it affected his offensive approach. I think he tried to do too much at times, which isn't necessary for him because he's a big, strong person that can do damage at an 80 percent level that most people have to put 100 percent into."

Ramirez's importance to the lineup can't be overstated. For one thing, as the No. 5 hitter, he's the primary protection for Ortiz in the cleanup spot. He also represents Boston's only other truly fearsome middle-of-the-order power threat.

Most significantly, if Ramirez hits, it will help cover for many of the mistakes he's bound to make at first base and keep him in line for what he really wants: an offense-only role.