Hanley Ramirez Should Play Third

Hanley Ramirez will be activated from the disabled list in a week, which means the Los Angeles Dodgers have a big decision to make. While the Dodgers are likely to cruise into the postseason, they haven’t exactly locked down the division just yet. To do so, and then get to the Fall Classic, the team will need to keep Ramirez healthy. And that leads to the question: Which position should he be playing? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons for putting Ramirez at shortstop or third base.

The case for shortstop

Ramirez has been playing shortstop all season, and he has racked up more innings there than he did in either 2012 or 2013, and nearly as many as he did in 2011. In fact, aside from 98 games at third base in 2012, and 14 games at either second or third when he was first in the minors, Ramirez has played only shortstop as a professional baseball player. So it’s likely that he’ll be most comfortable there. And comfort might be the most important factor in keeping him healthy.

The Dodgers also don’t have a great holistic replacement at shortstop. The man currently manning the position is 25-year-old rookie Miguel Rojas. Rojas has a stellar defensive reputation, but he isn’t so great with the bat in his hands. In nine seasons in the minors, he has hit just .238/.305/.297. Minor league statistics are frequently far from gospel, but across such a large sample size (2,639 plate appearances), the fact that he has a smaller slugging percentage than on-base percentage when his on-base percentage is so incredibly low tells a very clear tale. And thus far, his results in the majors haven’t done anything to prove that tale a mere fable.

Among the 401 players with at least 100 PA this season, just 29 have a lower wRC+ than Rojas’ paltry 53. That’s 47 percent below league average, certainly not optimal, even at a defense-first position like shortstop.

On the other side of the coin are Dee Gordon and Alex Guerrero, who both should hit just fine but are at best as qualified as Ramirez to play shortstop. They might actually be less qualified. It’s not a coincidence that Gordon didn’t find success in the majors until he moved to second base, and Guerrero has found his home at that spot in the minors as well. We might not have enough data on Guerrero yet to say that he definitively can’t play the position, but nothing in the way that he has been handled this season suggests that shortstop is in his future.

Beyond them are reserves Justin Turner and Darwin Barney. Neither has played shortstop regularly in the majors, and Turner didn’t play there much in the minors either.

This leaves the Ramirez, Rojas and possibly Gordon as the realistic options at shortstop. Ramirez is clearly the best of the bunch.

The case for third base

Whenever possible, you want to make sure the players who are placed in the starting lineup excel in at least one aspect of the game. Juan Uribe plays exceptional defense, but he is now on the disabled list with an injured hamstring. That leaves Turner, who has never been exceptional in any one area before this season.

Turner is hitting the ball pretty well this season and has been drawing walks, adding to his offensive value. But Turner packs little punch. His second-half ISO is a paltry .042, which limits him to being a singles hitter. Right now, the balls he is hitting are falling for singles, but they are falling at a rate that is far out of line with his previous career performances, and banking on that continuing — the way the Dodgers once banked on a similarly fluky performance from Luis Cruz continuing — would be pretty foolish. In addition, Turner doesn’t field all that well, so that leaves him more with the profile of a bench player.

Enter Ramirez. He might not play great defense, but he also didn’t exactly create a cone of ignorance there either. The fact that third base might be less demanding on him physically also is a point in the hot corner’s favor.

What does Hanley want?

Of course, we should also take a moment to consider what the player himself wants. If he is going to be unhappy at third base and is discouraged about coming to the ballpark as the result of a position switch, that could outweigh any health or team-fit benefits. Ramirez is set to be a free agent, and while most teams probably don’t view him as a shortstop in the long term, he will be unable to maintain even the illusion that he can play there in the coming years if he is shifted to third base for the remainder of the season. It shouldn’t be a major factor for the Dodgers, particularly if the situation is handled delicately, but it’s certainly something that the team needs to keep in mind.

Verdict

This essentially comes down to two questions: What position is going to keep Ramirez the healthiest? And which do you think will last longer, Rojas’ good defense or Turner’s good hitting?

The answer to both questions points clearly to Ramirez’s shifting back to third base, presuming, of course, that he will happily go along with the change. If he will, then the Dodgers will be able to run out their most optimal lineup, hopefully with the added benefit of keeping the brittle Ramirez on the field for the next two and a half months.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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