FORT MYERS, Fla. — For a time, it seemed inevitable that Hanley Ramirez would be the successor to Nomar Garciaparra. Now, that scenario is finally occurring, but in a fashion far different from what anyone might have imagined.
The vision of Ramirez as Garciaparra’s replacement at shortstop for the Red Sox never materialized. But Ramirez is now joining the former All-Star as a player making the move from a career spent mostly at that position to one as an everyday first baseman.
It would be natural to think that such a transition occurs frequently. After all, the demands of shortstop are such that players typically move off that position as they age.
It was with that notion in mind that Dodgers senior adviser to the president and former general manager Ned Colletti signed Garciaparra to play first for the Dodgers after the 2005 season. With third base entrusted to Bill Mueller and shortstop to Rafael Furcal, Colletti told Garciaparra that if he wanted to sign with his hometown Dodgers, he would have to move to first.
“I had remembered that Ernie Banks had done it,” recalled Colletti, a Chicago-area native. “I knew it had been done before. I didn’t realize that the only guy that I knew to have done it was the only guy to have ever done it.”
Colletti laughed at the bit of unexpected information: Garciaparra became just the second player in baseball history who, after playing 1,000 games at shortstop, moved across the diamond to start 100 or more in a season at first. The only other player to have done that, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was Banks. Ramirez is trying to become the third.
There are no guarantees that Garciaparra’s experience at first offers a clear indication of how Ramirez will adapt to the new position. After all, precedent-based guesses about how Ramirez would fare in his move to left field proved wildly off the mark. Moreover, Alex Rodriguez demonstrated a year ago that a former shortstop can look so out of place at first that the Yankees ended that project after just one game.
“I couldn’t even catch the ball,” Rodriguez told reporters. “I think it was against Boston, and [manager Joe Girardi] said, ‘That’s enough. No more of that.’ They took the mitt away and never let me see it again.
“For some reason, I just couldn’t get it done. It was strange. I felt really odd over there.”
Given Rodriguez’s struggles, and the shortage of players who have attempted the move from short to first, the Red Sox likely hope that Garciaparra’s experience harbors far greater relevance to Ramirez.
Colletti recalled that Garciaparra showed up regularly at Dodger Stadium during the offseason to work on his first base defense. Between his commitment to the position and his athleticism, the Dodgers felt that the position change was more than a mad scientist’s experiment.
“There was going to be a transition,” said Colletti. “He didn’t look natural immediately, but his athleticism and desire to get it right gave me the confidence that he was going to get it right.
“Was he going to be a Gold Glove first baseman? Probably not. But was he going to be more than adequate? Absolutely. And was his offense going to overtake any kind of defensive shortcomings he may have early? No question.
“As I look back on that year, there were very few instances where he looked out of place. There were less than five that he looked like, ‘Well, he’s really a shortstop.’ There were hardly any, but he put in so much work.”
Garciaparra’s work yielded solid returns. One year after he’d graded as one of the worst defensive players in baseball while on the left side of the infield with the Cubs, advanced metrics (including both Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating and Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved) pegged him as a slightly above-average defensive first baseman.
Moreover, after injuries contributed to the worst offensive season of his career to that point, Garciaparra reclaimed his status as a middle-of-the-order hitter. He hit .303/.367/.505 with 20 homers in 122 games in 2006, helping the Dodgers win the NL West and earning an All-Star selection.
“That was one of the greatest things I’d seen in a while, was someone who came across the diamond and signed a one-year deal as a free agent turned out to have an All-Star season,” said Colletti.
Ten years later, anything resembling such a performance for Ramirez would be a monumental development for the Red Sox. And while it’s drastically premature to say what will come, early signs have been quite promising.
In recent games, Ramirez has picked throws in the dirt, slapped a tag on a runner after jumping off the bag on an errant throw, and shown accurate reads on potential in-between hops on ground balls. Those are all signs that, as Ramirez described it, he is becoming “more comfortable every day.”
The early in-game evidence stands in contrast to a 2015 season when, after preparing his body in the offseason to hit like a left fielder, he never looked natural playing defense like one. The Sox encouraged Ramirez early to take a cautious approach in his transition to the outfield, and his approach never seemed to change.
This year, the tentative sensibilities of an out-of-water fish aren’t apparent. Manager John Farrell has praised Ramirez’s approach, first with his offseason work to increase his flexibility and agility, and now with his on-field work in the spring.
“His engagement in the work, he’s having fun playing the game. It shows,” said Farrell. “He talks about it in the dugout. The way he goes about playing it, he’s demonstrating it.”
It remains to be seen whether Ramirez comes close to replicating the quality of the transition made by Garciaparra. But at the least, the move by his Red Sox predecessor allows Ramirez to set his sights high.
“All of my infielders, I want them to be comfortable,” said Ramirez. “You’ve got Hanley at first. You don’t have to worry about anything. Just throw it in this area right here, and I’ve got you.”
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@alexspeier.