With free agency looming, Ramirez focused on team, winning

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Don Mattingly had it on his to-do list before he even arrived at camp: Check in with Hanley Ramirez to be sure he wouldn’t let his impending free agency be a nagging worry or an all-consuming distraction.

He met with Ramirez early, has continued the dialog in these early days of spring training, and has found that none of it has been particularly necessary.

Mattingly said Ramirez has kept his focus on the team. With reporters, he has brushed off questions about his contract status, focusing instead on the Dodgers’ goal of winning a World Series.

“For me, honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I’m not thinking like that,” Ramirez said.

Even if he were, would that be such a bad thing? The Dodgers finally got a glimpse of what all the fuss was about last year. Ramirez was the best hitter in the National League when he was healthy and he seemed to carry none of the baggage that had caused some friction in Miami.

Now, imagine how good he could be in 2014 with the beacon of a nine-figure contract beckoning in November. Don’t think that has crossed the Dodgers’ minds?

“At the end of the year, if nothing happens, there are 30 teams who have a chance at Hanley Ramirez, a guy that does the things he can do,” Mattingly said. “That’s a pretty good carrot.”

Now that Derek Jeter has announced he’ll retire after this season, one of those teams is the New York Yankees, the only team that has won a bidding war with the Dodgers’ new owners. The Yankees, who out-bid the Dodgers for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, might be interested in Ramirez, they might not. But it’s another factor that makes determining his market a bit hazy this spring.

Ramirez would be easily the best hitter in free agency next winter, but he played in barely more than half the Dodgers’ games last season. When he was on the field, his play combined with the arrival of Yasiel Puig lifted the Dodgers out of last place. Ramirez’s 1.040 OPS was the best among all NL players with a minimum of 225 plate appearances.

Ramirez grew up admiring Jeter all the way through the minor leagues, opting to wear the No. 2 early in his career out of respect, and he is trying to emulate Jeter’s approach by keeping his entire focus on the collective endeavor rather than the personal one. A year ago, the Dodgers went into the season hoping Ramirez would be one of their leaders, but not sure if he would be.

Now, they’re fairly certain he’ll show up every day prepared to play and focused on the goal they all share.

“I think that’s what Jeter does, he puts everybody on the same page,” Ramirez said. “He lets everybody know in the organization that there’s just one goal, winning a championship.”

Mattingly said he noticed Ramirez beginning to take on those attributes after helping the Dominican team win the World Baseball Classic, a tournament which otherwise proved costly to the Dodgers. Ramirez began the season on the disabled list after tearing a thumb ligament diving for a ground ball. Mattingly monitored Ramirez’s public comments last year and found that he was talking about the team’s wins and losses, not his own at-bats.

Ramirez, 30, said he feels good this spring, though he knocks on wood just in case. After about six weeks of rest, he said, the rib that Joe Kelly broke with an errant fastball stopped causing him pain. He and the trainers have worked out a regimen to strengthen his lower back, hoping it can help him avoid the hamstring issues that plagued him.

He might never have a reputation as sterling as Jeter’s but he seems intent on writing an entirely different narrative for the second half of his career.

“I definitely got way better since I got here, personally, and I think I’ve learned a lot from my teammates,” Ramirez said. “They made me a better player, a better person and a better teammate.”