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It Has Been a Dizzying Start Indeed for Hanley Ramirez's Switch to Left Field

hanleywall.jpg
Jim Davis/Globe Staff


COMMENTARY

Well, Hanley Ramirez’s first foray with the left field wall at Fenway Park this season was certainly…interesting.

With the first 2015 homestand in the books, a 4-3 stretch against the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles that saw the Red Sox maintain their early-season lead atop the American League East standings, the best that can be said about Ramirez’s defensive prowess in left is that it can get better. Because right now, it’s not hyperbole to opine that Hanley Ramirez looks like the worst left fielder in the history of the Boston Red Sox.

Manny got better than where Hanley is right now and, believe it or not, did it with more immediacy. Mike Greenwell would have looked downright adept versus the bumping and stumbling Ramirez displayed over the weekend against the Orioles, when he misplayed a handful of balls off the wall and generally loafed in retrieving those out of his reach. Hell, Jim Rice should have won a Gold Glove in comparison to how Ramirez has looked out there.

Ramirez, who’s transitioning to the position after a decade in the major leagues spent mostly as a shortstop, signed with the Red Sox last offseason after agreeing to give the outfield a try, particularly with Pablo Sandoval also coming in to play third, and the young Xander Bogaerts manning shortstop. Seemed easy enough in a sort of, "Well, if Manny could do it…" sort of solution that would help give Boston a significant offensive threat in an outfield that delivered historically bad production in 2014.

On that note, Ramirez has delivered: five home runs, 12 runs batted in, and an .877 OPS.

The problem is that, at the age of 31, Ramirez’s natural position on the field these days seems to be occupied by David Ortiz, the 39-year-old designated hitter who may or may not retire at some point during the lifetime of Ramirez’s four-year deal with Boston. Nobody’s daft enough to believe the Red Sox are paying Ramirez $88 million for his glove in any form, so they stuck him in left field by default. At Fenway Park, it’s a position that can mask some defensive flaws, as well as greatly expose others in those not familiar with how to play the unique surroundings. It’s not like Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington didn’t expect some semblance of this when he signed him, and frankly, few worse things could happen than losing Ramirez’s bat because he tore something at a position into which he’s just now dipping his feet.

"We knew it was going to be a transition," Red Sox manager John Farrell said over the weekend, when many were left wondering where all the hard word Ramirez reportedly put into his defense over the winter in Santo Domingo and at spring training in front of the wall at JetBlue Park suddenly went kaput.

"There’s work to be done because the wall here is different than Fort Myers," Farrell said. "But there’s nothing alarming."

That’s true. But…well, not really.

Let’s give Ramirez the benefit of the doubt that he was suffering from a bout with "dizziness and light-headedness" when Farrell removed him from Monday’s game against the Orioles after only two innings, during which Ramirez looked and played like a guy who had never experienced an 11 a.m. start time, and perhaps more apropos, one who didn’t care to battle elements at a cold and drizzly Fenway.

"It came on as the game began," Farrell said following the Red Sox’ rain-shortened, 7-1 win over Baltimore. "He was examined by the doctors here when he came out of the game and stayed off his feet."

Ramirez grounded weakly to first base in his only at-bat in the game, then nonchalantly watched Baltimore’s Ryan Flaherty hit a ball off the wall in left in the second inning. He looked to be about as interested in the moment as Farrell might be with an invitation to Rusney Castillo’s birthday party sitting on his desk. Allen Craig replaced Ramirez, leaving everyone wondering what the problem could be, even though everybody knew exactly what the problem was.

Hanley didn’t want to play.

If there is indeed an edict from the Red Sox front office to play the position, but you know, don’t play the position, Ramirez being out there in less-than-ideal conditions is something that will make anyone with a knowledge of the fragility of baseball players groan. But with an $88 million investment, and a guy playing the wall as if he were puppy being teased with a Slim Jim, where’s the harm in him talking a break from a game mid-April?

Except that Ramirez brought this reputation with him from Los Angeles, where manager Don Mattingly would maddeningly wonder night-to-night what, if anything, he was going to get from his diva infielder. Where’s the line between where the Red Sox want to limit Ramirez in left and what Ramirez himself decides?

Ramirez’s defense has been atrocious. But that’s truly of little concern. A work in progress.

But if Monday was a glimpse into what Ramirez’s detractors have long criticized him for, how much better can it realistically get?

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