After the left field disaster of 2016, much of the attention paid to Hanley Ramirez in the early part of spring training has been focused on whether or not he can transition to first base. Naturally, the narratives around his defense fall squarely into two camps. There are those who think he's going to produce a lowlight reel of gaffes at his new position, pointing to the narratives of indifference and laziness surrounding Ramirez in the past. And there are those who believe that first base will be an easy move for the former shortstop. The position is just (?) catching throws, after all. How hard could that really be for someone who is paid to be a professional athlete?
The truth will likely fall somewhere in the middle. Ramirez is a natural infielder and third base coach Brian Butterfield is one of the best in the business when it comes to footwork around the diamond. Just watch Xander Bogaerts' progression from year one to year two at shortstop; a lot of the improvement seen in Bogaerts' game can be credited to the coaching of Butterfield.
But when you have a guy who took incompetence to another level last year in left field, the natural inclination is to worry.
The small things are truly important at first base — picking balls, making that extra stretch, making that diving stop — but for Ramirez the biggest thing the Red Sox needs from him is not a slightly below-average glove. They need him to hit again. What's been underplayed amidst all of the hubbub around whether or not Ramirez can catch throws from across the infield is whether or not he can become a dangerous hitter again.
By all measures, Ramirez posted the worst offensive season of his entire major league career last season. The .291 on-base percentage was 31 point under his previous career-low mark of .333 in 2011, he posted his lower wOBA since 2011 and posted the lowest Offensive Runs Above Average total (-8.2 per FanGraphs) since, you guessed it, 2011, when he posted -1.0 Off.
If there's one thing Ramirez has historically shown he can do during his career, it's been that he can mash a baseball.
If someone is looking for an explanation as to why Hanley didn't hit last season, just turn to hitting coach Chili Davis, who told Scott Lauber of ESPN (Side note: Congrats on the awesome new gig, Scott) that injuries hampered Ramirez last year.
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.
Presumably, the distraction of learning a new position will be significantly lessened with the move to first base. The corner outfield spots can be deceptively hard positions to play with balls spinning in weird directions while in flight (as I've experienced in my relative incompetence to play left and right field playing high school baseball). There's a lot less risk for injury, generally, with no walls to crash into and the small things with playing first base are much easier than the small things you need to know in left field (not that those small things in the outfield are very hard to begin with).
At the very minimum (barring a trade), Hanley is going to be in Boston for another three seasons, with this year at first base likely acting as a bridge between his full-time transition to life as a designated hitter, where he'll no longer have to worry about catching baseballs in any way, shape or form. But in order for that plan to fully work out, one needs to remember that Ramirez needs to hit again. That's why the Red Sox brought him back to Boston in the first place.
Ramirez looked like that type of must-have hitter during all of April last season, when he hit 10 home runs in the opening month. But he hit just nine dingers the rest of the way, none of whom came after the All-Star break. It was a pretty stunning drought from a player whose approach at the plate is centered around hitting baseballs onto the Mass Pike.
But what's important to remember is that Ramirez's power outage came after May 4th, the day he rammed into a wall in foul territory and strained his left shoulder. While it may seem too convenient to put all the blame for his lack of success at the plate on that injury, the fact of the matter is that while Ramirez returned after just three games, his power stayed missing. The splits are like night and day: a .609 slugging percentage before, a .372 after.
As Ben Buchanan wrote in this space last week, the Red Sox can have a time limit on waiting for the old Hanley to show up at the plate given that they have a seemingly suitable replacement in Travis Shaw.. But all things considered, it's in the best interest of the team to find a way to get Hanley going again at the plate; his offensive ceiling is still higher than that of Shaw's, and gives the team an heir apparent at the designated hitter spot once David Ortiz finally hangs up the cleats after 2016. Next year's free agent class isn't anything to write home about, and the team already has a pretty high payroll. The Red Sox would be wise to do everything they can to ensure that Ramirez steps into Ortiz's role next year.
Of course, all of this is completely dependent on Hanley Ramirez actually hitting at the plate, but his success this year should not be judged on his defense, because in the grand scheme, his impact (positive or negative) in the field at first base will be contained to this season. In order for the Red Sox to salvage anything out of the signing of Hanley Ramirez, the team needs him to hit again, not field. Their success as a team both now and in the immediate future could be pretty dependent on it.