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Hanley Ramirez free agency preview

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The Dodgers might not want him back, and if that's the case, Ramirez could be headed to the American League.

Tasos Katopodis

Hanley Ramirez truly defines the word "enigma." His average fluctuates wildly from year to year, he's an injury risk but can be one of the best hitters in the majors when healthy, and he's once again near the bottom of the league in most fielding metrics after a respectable defensive performance in 2013.

If we've learned anything from Ramirez's 10 seasons in the majors, however, it's that he has potential—perhaps more than any other hitter on the market this offseason. There's no guarantee Ramirez finds himself on another team next season, of course, and it's hard to imagine that the Dodgers lack the necessary funds to keep him on board. But if he hits the open market, Ramirez will make a lot of money, as there will be plenty of teams in need of a new shortstop.

In the upcoming paragraphs, we'll take a look at whether the Dodgers really want to keep Ramirez, where he's likely to go if they don't make an effort to re-sign him, and what his value projects to be on the open market. Grab some popcorn!

Where he's been

The Red Sox signed Ramirez from the Dominican Republic in July 2000 and traded him to the Marlins in 2005 with Anibal Sanchez (and a few other minor leaguers) in the deal that sent Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett to the Sox. The trade worked in Boston's favor, as the latter two players were integral pieces of the Red Sox' World Series puzzle in 2007. (Lowell drove in a career-high 120 runs and finished fifth in MVP voting that year, and Beckett won 20 games—the only time he has accomplished the feat.)

The following year, Ramirez immediately showed what he was capable of, hitting .292 with an .833 OPS, 11 triples and 51 steals on his way to capturing the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year award. He improved his OPS by more than 100 points the following season, the first of four consecutive years with a batting average of .300 or better. During that run, in 2009, Ramirez hit .342/.410/.543 and missed out on the MVP award only because of Albert Pujols' super-human performance that year.

Then came the falloff. Ramirez hasn't made it to the All-Star game since 2010, and in the two years following his impressive run (2011 and 2012), he posted OPS+ totals of 95 and 105, respectively—essentially making him the definition of a league average player.

That all changed in 2013, when Ramirez only played in 86 games but was so productive that he finished eighth in MVP voting for the Dodgers. That led to talk of another potential MVP run this season and a huge contract during the offseason, whether it was with the Dodgers or elsewhere.

Where he is now

Ramirez's revitalization in 2013 created high expectations, and he hasn't been able to repeat his success.

But even with the regression, Ramirez is still an above average hitter and elite shortstop, at least on the offensive side. He leads all qualifying players at his position in on-base and slugging percentage, and he's tied for third in RBIs despite playing in almost 30 fewer games than many of his fellow shortstops.

That latter statistic is more a testament to the strength of the Dodgers' lineup, but the point is that Ramirez is clearly a run producer—something in short supply at the shortstop position.

The ugly flip side of that is Ramirez's poor defensive play. Though always a below average fielder, the Dodgers shortstop has truly outdone himself this year. His -16.7 UZR/150 is the lowest it has been since 2007, according to FanGraphs, and only six players in the majors have been worse by that metric.

American League teams would have the option of sticking Ramirez in the DH slot from time to time, lessening the blow of his fielding troubles. That could make him more likely to switch leagues this offseason, especially considering Ramirez might sign a contract that will take him into his late 30s. By then, he could exclusively become a DH or corner infielder.

Where he's going

First things first: None of the speculation about possible destinations for Ramirez is relevant unless the Dodgers don't want him back, so let's look at the likelihood of an extension.

In February, Ramirez stated his desire to be "a Dodger for life," but it's unclear if the feeling is mutual.

In fact, it probably isn't. Players who aren't durable and have a history of defensive struggles aren't prime candidates for expensive long-term extensions, especially when said players are 30 years old. The Dodgers have had a close-up view of Ramirez's poor play in the field, and they might be tired of his errors and laziness costing the team runs and wins.

That said, Ramirez is also the best offensive shortstop not named Troy Tulowitzki, and the Dodgers would miss his bat if they let him walk. But uber-prospect Corey Seager might be ready to take over at short sometime next season, lessening the blow of Ramirez's potential departure.

Another point to consider: Third baseman Juan Uribe is only signed through the end of 2015, so if the Dodgers could consider eventually sliding Ramirez over to third and putting Seager at shortstop.

★★★

Ramirez actually turns 31 in December, which means he's much better suited to play for an AL team that can hide him at the DH spot—or one that already has defensive standouts in the infield to help mitigate Ramirez's negative effect.

Historically, teams have overlooked poor fielding if a player can compensate at the plate. But recently, the trend has shifted in favor of defense as more and more teams have learned just how important it is. (For example, Andrelton Simmons would never have dreamed of a $58 million contract in the 1990s or maybe even the early 2000s.) Because of this recent change, many teams will likely pass on Ramirez because they won't believe he's worth the price.

But teams that are desperate for a reversal of fortune and have the checkbook to make that happen will be all over Ramirez if he ends up testing the market. Of course, Derek Jeter's retirement leaves a Hall of Fame-sized hole at shortstop for the Yankees, and Ramirez wouldn't be much of a downgrade from Jeter's defense.

The only issue: While the Yankees always seem to have money to burn, this upcoming season might be different. With payroll commitments numbering upwards of $170 million in 2015 and several key expiring contracts (closer David Robertson, for one), the Yanks might be strapped for cash.

That last statement sounded absurd to type out, because the Yankees never quite seem to run out of money. So while players like J.J. Hardy or Jed Lowrie might be better and more logical fits to replace Jeter (assuming they become free agents), Ramirez is another option if the Yankees are willing to spend the money and deal with more years of defensive turmoil at the six spot.

More likely, the Red Sox will give Ramirez a serious thought and should be considered legitimate candidates to re-acquire the player they originally signed 14 years ago.

But wait! The Red Sox already have Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks and Mookie Betts in the infield, not to mention Dustin Pedroia and prospect Garin Cecchini. But maybe those players aren't a sure thing.

It's unfair to judge Bogaerts by about a season of experience, but through 625 plate appearances, the Sox infielder has a .238/.299/.362 career line. He likely has a very bright future ahead and could be a stalwart of the Boston infield for years to come, but his success is far from guaranteed.

The came can be said of Middlebrooks, who is hitting .191 this season and hasn't come close to replicating his success from 2012. His three-year OPS+ decline is as follows: 121, 88 and 48, from 2012 to 2014. In other words, there's some uncertainty on the left side of the Boston infield.

The Red Sox are set to go on a huge spending spree, they need to improve quickly, and the potential market lacks elite hitters. Maybe, just maybe, those factors could point the Sox toward Ramirez this winter.

Another possible destination is that other team in New York—the Mets. Though they should have one of the NL's best rotations in 2016 with Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler, the Mets will need offense to complement that pitching. Current shortstop Wilmer Flores (career .292/.334/.440 hitter in seven minor league seasons) has gotten off to a very slow start since he was called up to the majors last season, and their next best option, prospect Amed Rosario, was demoted to Low-A earlier this season.

The Mets don't necessarily project to contend next year, so they could wait it out with Flores and hope he settles in somewhere close to his level of production in the minors. But signing Ramirez would guarantee the Mets a reliable bat at short and give the team an excellent infield of David Wright, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda and Ramirez. Additionally, the four previously mentioned pitchers all have high strikeout rates, which makes Ramirez's defensive issues that much less of an issue.

Of course, it's still a stretch. The Mets aren't a financial powerhouse, and they had just the 22nd-highest payroll in baseball this season. But they've ranked near the top as recently as 2011, when the team had the majors' seventh-highest payroll, and we've seen them spend big on infielders like Wright and Jose Reyes. Ramirez to the Mets is an unlikely but very possible scenario.