New-look Marlins not short on drama
Hanley Ramirez becomes focus as big-spending Miami rules winter meetings
DALLAS -- The Miami Marlins made their interest in Jose Reyes clear by meeting with him and his agents at 12:01 a.m. the day he hit the open market in early November. Nothing says love like a rendezvous and accompanying schmoozefest at a New York City hotel bar.
If that recruiting trip was symbolic, a later episode shed some light on Miami management's desire to ensure a smooth trip as the ship was leaving the dock: Thirty seconds after the Marlins agreed with Reyes on a six-year, $106 million deal Sunday, owner Jeffrey Loria called incumbent shortstop Hanley Ramirez to make sure he was OK with the signing and his resultant shift to third base.
"It's all about information,'' Loria said Wednesday afternoon. "I'm a big believer in communication. Hanley is an important part of our team, and I wanted to let him know what we had just done.''
Now that it's been established that the Marlins are big on protocol and showing respect and good manners, a major question remains: Can they go from a disparate collection of elite talent into one happy, cohesive, butt-kicking family unit under the guidance of manager Ozzie Guillen?
The Marlins have been a great big, news-generating machine at the Hilton Anatole hotel during the MLB winter meetings this week. They introduced new closer Heath Bell on Monday, held a news conference Wednesday in the aftermath of the Reyes deal, and then bolstered their starting rotation with a four-year, $58 million contract for free-agent starter Mark Buehrle.
And that's not all. Although the Marlins are out of the Albert Pujols sweepstakes -- because they jumped or were pushed, depending on the source -- they're still making a play for free-agent lefty C.J. Wilson. As for Prince Fielder, Marlins officials have privately said the team will not be in the mix. But Guillen, oddly enough, tossed out Fielder's name as a potential target several times in a managerial bull session Wednesday.
Amid the euphoria of early December, there's an undercurrent of intrigue surrounding Ramirez, the team's talented-yet-enigmatic centerpiece. If you thought it was interesting to see if LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could coexist while sharing one basketball in South Beach, just wait and see how this one plays out.
It's common knowledge in baseball circles that Ramirez is a high-maintenance player, and reports have already surfaced that he's unhappy, wants to be traded and is going to be an all-around pain in response to his upcoming position change. Ramirez has yet to comment for public consumption, but he did address the issue on his Twitter account Tuesday after acknowledging that "everyone's waiting to see what's gonna happen with me.''
In the absence of a real-life Hanley sighting, Marlins officials have been lining up to insist that Ramirez is on board with the program and will not be traded this winter.
"Hanley is a key to our team,'' said club president Larry Beinfest. "He has been. He is a unique talent. We recognize that. We recognize his ability. We recognize his achievements already in a very young career. We have dealt with him respectfully and timely in our communication, and we have every intention of him being our third baseman alongside Jose -- pairing to be, we think, the best left side of the infield in baseball without peer.''
The rampant skepticism is a product of Ramirez's reputation. This is the same Hanley who jogged after a ball in 2010 to pave the way for manager Fredi Gonzalez's firing, and got called out by teammate Logan Morrison this season for strolling into the clubhouse so much later than his teammates. He has a rep for playing hard and running out balls when the mood strikes him, so people have a right to be dubious until they see a happy, focused, committed Ramirez in spring training -- and beyond.
From a pure baseball standpoint, it's natural to wonder if a team is making optimal use of its resources by signing a 28-year-old free-agent shortstop to a nine-figure deal when it already has a 27-year-old, four-time All-Star at the position. But Ramirez is one jumbo-sized shortstop at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and is showing some major signs of slippage with a glove. In 2008 and 2009, he ranked 15th among major league shortstops in the Fielding Bible's "runs saved'' category. The last two years he's dipped to 35th and 27th.
Despite those ominous warning signs, Ramirez wouldn't be the first shortstop to resist the move from shortstop because of comfort, ego or a reluctance to surrender the coveted "captain on the field'' designation. Cal Ripken Jr. and Michael Young are among the players who were less than thrilled to move off short. And then there's Derek Jeter, whose franchise icon status allowed him to remain at the position even though Alex Rodriguez was considered a superior defender upon joining the Yankees in 2004.
In the long run, Guillen thinks the switch will benefit Ramirez for a lot of reasons.
"You're going to be more fresh,'' Guillen said. "You're not going to be doing cutoffs and relays. I think you're going to be stronger, you're going to be better, and it's going to help you out offensively and defensively.
"If you get moved out of your position and [the team plays] Pablo Ozuna or myself [at shortstop], I'd be very mad. But when it's one of the best players in the game right now to help you to win some games ... well ... you should be happy. I don't expect him to be excited about it, but you should understand our point with what we want to do for the team.''
Few managers are better equipped to deal with the inevitable rocky moments than Guillen is. He's so candid and adept at using humor to defuse tense situations, he makes it hard for the tension to fester. Where some managers might be inclined to tap-dance around an issue, Ozzie is always going to charge in with combat boots and battle fatigues. At some point, if Ramirez sulks or loses focus, it will be Guillen's mandate to help him get his mind right.
Of course, Ramirez would prefer to stay at shortstop. But he also gets to hit third in the Marlins' lineup behind Reyes and the equally fleet Emilio Bonifacio. Miami has the potential to be a run producer's nirvana in 2012.
The Miami baseball people insist this wasn't just a matter of throwing money at a big name and pounding a square peg into a round hole. Beinfest, general manager Mike Hill, assistant GM Dan Jennings and the talent evaluators all kicked around the idea with Loria, and they overwhelmingly thought the new arrangement could work.
"It's like Larry told Jeffrey: 'As great as Hanley is, you can put him at any position on the field, and your team is better,'" said club president David Samson.
Added Loria: "We've been together a long time. We all talk all the time, all day. And the concept of having Hanley play third base is a no-brainer. He's an amazing athlete. We may ask him to be our closer one day.''
The happy talk certainly makes for great copy on a cold December day when everyone is still waiting around for Albert Pujols to make up his mind. But no matter how the Marlins spin it or Ramirez tweets it, the verdict won't be clear until the spring, when the Marlins put on those spiffy new uniforms and go out and play.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.