GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With the possible exception of Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez is the most indispensable player on the Los Angeles Dodgers' 25-man roster. He's a shortstop who hits like his namesake, Manny Ramirez, and that's an impossible combination to replace when he's absent from the lineup.
Two other complementary attributes -- his team-oriented approach and willingness to play through injuries -- have made Ramirez an even bigger part of the equation in Los Angeles. Although Ramirez will never completely shake his reputation as a player who performs according to his whim, time and maturity have lent some texture to his personality profile.
Hardcore Dodgers watchers noticed a change in Ramirez last season after he returned from the World Baseball Classic, in which he helped lead the Dominican Republic to a championship. Ramirez missed most of the first two months with thumb and hamstring injuries, but the communal experience and the thrill of winning in the WBC seemed to elicit a change in him. He's different from what the other Dodgers players expected when he arrived from the Marlins by trade in July 2012.
"The thing I love the most about him -- and it's the antithesis of what was said when he came over -- is what a leader he is up the middle of the infield," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "This guy takes control of our infield. When we have mound meetings, he comes in and he's part of the conversation on how we're going to pitch these guys. There are times when he comes in and he'll back me up and say, 'Listen to A.J.' I appreciate that. His desire to lead and be a part of a winning team is totally opposite of what we heard when the trade was made a couple of years ago."
A subtle-yet-telling moment earlier this spring substantiated the notion that Ramirez is taking this whole "leadership" responsibility to heart. When Dodgers starter Zack Greinke suffered a calf injury in his Cactus League debut, Ramirez was the first teammate to the mound to check on his well-being. The gesture showed a level of engagement that has never been considered part of the Hanley Ramirez five-tool package.
Ramirez is in a good place this spring. Before a recent game against the San Diego Padres, he spent the morning flitting from the batting cage to the food room to the clubhouse, where he alternately bantered with Juan Uribe, signed some baseballs for Ellis and mixed in a game of ping-pong. As the Dodgers prepare to wing it to Australia on March 16 for their season opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he's clearly among friends.
"Everybody has shown me a lot of support and respect, and I try to do the same thing back," Ramirez said. "They've made me feel comfortable here, and that's what you need. If you're comfortable and happy and you know that everybody has got your back, you're gonna do better and play harder."
The long-term picture
In a brief interview with ESPN.com, Ramirez talked about his desire to stay healthy, his fondness for Los Angeles and the amazing stretch of offensive prowess that catapulted him to an eighth-place finish in the National League MVP race even though he logged a total of 86 games and 304 at-bats between visits to the disabled list.
Then, the subject of his unsettled contract situation was raised, and he flashed a broad smile and headed for the showers.
While the Dodgers have invested huge money in Kershaw ($215 million), Matt Kemp ($160 million), Greinke ($147 million) and Andre Ethier ($85 million), Ramirez remains in limbo. He's eligible for free agency in November, and, given his oft-stated man crush on Derek Jeter, he has been mentioned as a candidate to succeed the Captain as a potential long-term fit at shortstop in the Bronx.
One unavoidable question: Can a team sign Ramirez for six or seven years with full confidence that the "new and improved" Hanley is the real deal, or wonder if he'll simply revert to his old high-maintenance ways once he gets paid? It's been four years since Ramirez notoriously jogged after a ball to earn a benching from then-Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, and that's a tough image for some front-office executives to shake.
Another question, which has been making the rounds for a while now, is how long Ramirez can handle the defensive responsibilities of shortstop. Last season he ranked eighth at the position on the Fielding Bible's plus-minus leaderboard (directly between Troy Tulowitzki and Brendan Ryan), with plus-eight runs saved. That's surprisingly good.
But the metrics tell only part of the story. Scouts and execs see a big man at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, and they wonder if he's going to get heavier now that he's passed age 30. How much longer will Ramirez have the agility to move side to side in quick bursts, dodge incoming baserunners on double-play pivots and range into the outfield after popups and relay throws?
"I wrote him up as a third baseman last year," a scout in the Cactus League said.
For all the Jeter talk, the more relevant question might be whether Ramirez is a candidate to replace Alex Rodriguez at third base in the Bronx.
"It's getting harder to find a third baseman that profiles like he does," another scout said. "He's gonna be a power guy. He's got a great arm. He's got some first-step quickness. I think he'd play longer and be more productive as a third baseman."
Assuming Ramirez can stay on the field, the bat will suffice no matter where the Dodgers, or any other team, play him. His Los Angeles teammates look back with respect bordering on reverence over what he achieved in 2013, when he returned from the DL and combined with Yasiel Puig to spark a run from last place in the NL West to a 92-70 record and a division title. The Dodgers were 51-26 when Ramirez was in the starting lineup and 41-44 when he wasn't.
"I always tell everyone, 'Puig might have been the one to start our engine, but Hanley is the one who ran it [last season],'" first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "He was our best player. He was our best hitter, and he was the one who was leading the charge, for sure."
Los Angeles players who've been around a while compare Ramirez's extended run of excellence with the string that Manny Ramirez put together during a two-month span in 2008, when he hit .396 with a 1.232 OPS after joining the Dodgers from Boston at the trade deadline.
ManRam and HanRam share more than just rhythmic nicknames. Manny had a knack -- and Hanley still does -- for hitting the ball hard even if an at-bat played out in unexpected ways.
"Manny would sit on a slider the whole at-bat," Kershaw said. "Some other guys do that, but if the pitcher throws anything else, they look terrible. Manny was still able to foul off pitches until he got a slider, and he wouldn't miss it. Hanley is the same way. He definitely looks for certain pitches when he's up there, but if he's fooled or doesn't expect a pitch, that's what separates him. He can still spoil that pitch."
Hanley Ramirez has a pronounced leg kick but rarely, if ever, seems to get caught off balance. He's able to stay inside the baseball and drive it to all fields and has the self-confidence and quick hands to let the ball travel deep in the zone before he commits.
"He's got such a violent, aggressive swing, but it's always under control, if that makes sense," Ellis said. "His body stays calm while his swing is violent."
Ramirez's offensive impact seems even more profound when measured against the Dodgers' alternatives. Dee Gordon, Los Angeles' Plan B at shortstop, has a .614 OPS and 26 extra-base hits in 621 major league at-bats, so it's imperative for manager Don Mattingly to find a way to keep Ramirez in the lineup. The Dodgers think they have a better handle on the reasons behind Ramirez's bouts of hamstring tightness now, and Mattingly expects to give him regular, preemptive rests to keep him operational.
The Dodgers saw Ramirez's impact last postseason in the National League Division Series, in which he went 8-for-16, and they beat the Atlanta Braves to advance. Then, Ramirez suffered a broken rib on a Joe Kelly fastball in Game 1 of the NLCS. He went 2-for-15 against the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Dodgers were done for the season.
"We know how important Hanley is to our lineup," Gonzalez said. "I think we lost that series because of that."
The gang is back together at Dodgers camp this spring, with a big payroll, even bigger expectations and looking forward to a deeper postseason run. Ramirez loves L.A., and L.A. appears to love him back. Short term or long term, they're going to enjoy the relationship while it lasts.