It's 5 p.m. onApril 24, and the Florida Marlins are doing what they normally do when it's 5p.m. and they are in Miami: They're taking batting practice. The Marlins,somewhat unexpectedly, boast one of baseball's most explosive offenses--atweek's end they led the majors in extra-base hits (97) and slugging percentage(.475)--and this afternoon that potency is on full display. Miguel Cabrera, thehulking 24-year-old third baseman who's averaged 31 home runs the past threeseasons, launches ball after soaring ball, many of which land in the outfieldseats at Dolphin Stadium. Dan Uggla, the second-year second baseman with thecircus strongman forearms, does the same. There is something metronomicallyworkaday about the process: Step in, take a few hacks, let the next guy have ago, repeat. Then Hanley Ramirez enters the cage.
The BP cuts byRamirez, the 23-year-old reigning National League Rookie of the Year whom theMarlins acquired from the Red Sox two winters ago in a deal that centered onace Josh Beckett, look, and even sound, different. His superior bat speedenables him to wait a split second longer than most hitters, and when hefinally uncoils, the crack of bat meeting ball sounds sharper than usual, morestaccato. During this session he hits nearly every ball so perfectly and sohard, to all fields and, often enough, over the fence, that in the secondsbefore his next swing you can only think, What kind of pitcher could possiblygive this guy trouble?
Says Ramirez,"Right now, I don't think there is one. I'm feeling pretty great when Istep up to home plate." His numbers in April bore that out. He hit lefties(at a .474 clip). He hit righties (.343). He hit at home (.302). He hit on theroad (.429). He hit during the day (.429). He hit at night (.343). In all, hebatted .364, with a .462 OBP, four homers, 13 extra-base hits and sixsteals.
"I was withthe Mariners when A-Rod came up, and the special guys, they stand out rightaway," says Marlins G.M. Larry Beinfest, who first saw Ramirez play threeyears ago with the Red Sox' Single A affiliate in Sarasota. "Hanley stoodout right away."
It's a testamentto Ramirez's blossoming maturity that when a reporter presses Jim Presley, theMarlins' hitting coach, for one way in which Ramirez might improve as a hitter,Presley is momentarily stumped. Finally, he suggests, without great conviction,that Ramirez might consider bunting more often. Combine Ramirez's precocioushitting talent with his rapidly improving plate discipline (he's on pace towalk 91 times this season, 35 more than last year), his speed (he stole 51bases in '06) and his above-average range and powerful, accurate arm, and you'dthink that Ramirez should have a choke hold on the NL's starting shortstop spotin the All-Star Game for the next decade.
Unfortunately forRamirez, he's got a little competition for that honor. As hot as he has been tostart the season, NL East rivals Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies and Jose Reyesof the Mets have been equally scorching. Through April, Ramirez's 26 runsscored tied him for first in the league--with Rollins and Reyes. (A fourth NLEast shortstop, Atlanta's Edgar Renteria, also ranked in the league's top 10,with 17). Rollins's nine homers led the league; Reyes's 17 stolen bases ledbaseball. "I tell Reyes, you and me, it's going to be a fight to start theAll-Star Game," says the 28-year-old Rollins. "Hanley, that man is nojoke; his time is definitely going to come."
Rollins, Reyes andRamirez represent the next step in the evolution of the shortstop, from speedy,slick-fielding slap hitter (Phil Rizzuto, Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith), tothickly built slugger (Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra,Miguel Tejada), to an even more versatile, physically explosive prototype."They're unbelievably athletic, freakishly strong and fast," says Ugglaof the NL East trio. "They have a lot of power, but they use their speedand gap shots to get on base." Through Monday they were on pace to average.339, with 232 hits, 46 doubles, 34 homers, 66 stolen bases and an astonishing177 runs scored apiece.
Rollins is thefirst to admit that he's not as naturally gifted as Reyes and Ramirez. At5'8" he gives up five inches to Reyes and seven to Ramirez, and althoughhe's stolen an average of 34 bases over the past six seasons, Rollins concedesto them any footrace. "Reyes and Hanley," he says, "those dudesfly." Even so, Rollins believes that his experience puts him at the top ofthe group in terms of present value to his team. "It's probably me, Reyesand then Hanley," he says. His teammates, at the least, agree. "Incomparison to those guys, he's an old, wily veteran," says pitcher JamieMoyer, at 44 an old, wily veteran himself. "Jimmy plays the game a littlemore intelligently--not a knock on the other two--but on defense he may cheatup the middle a bit more, he may cheat into the hole. A ball gets hit up themiddle, and you're like, Wow, how did he get to that?"
Still, when thequestion becomes which of the three will be considered the best when all issaid and done, Rollins won't top many lists. Last December, Ken Griffey Jr.cited Ramirez as the player he'd pick to start a franchise. Most baseballpeople, though, covet Reyes even more. "I love Hanley Ramirez, I love JimmyRollins, but Jose Reyes is the guy I would pick of the three," saysWashington Nationals G.M. Jim Bowden. "He has the highest upside."
The scene at 10:30p.m. in the visiting clubhouse in Miami on April 24, after the Braves hadbeaten Ramirez and the Marlins 11--6, illustrates just how much respect the23-year-old Reyes has earned as he plays in just his third full season in thebig leagues. With the team bus idling outside, several Braves--includingpitcher Tim Hudson, utilityman Pete Orr and rightfielder Jeff Francoeur--pauseon their way back from the showers, towels around their waists, to watch the TVperched above the lockers as Reyes bats against Colorado reliever Ryan Speierwith a man on third and two outs in the 12th inning, the score tied 1--1."They're pitching to him!" shouts Francoeur. "Oh, man, this game'sover. All he's going to do is chop one on the ground and beat it out."
Reyes takes thefirst pitch for a ball and fouls off the second before laying off two off-speedpitches just off the plate. Then Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta stands andcalls for an intentional ball four. "Now you're bring smart!" Francoeursays.
The next batter,Endy Chavez, drags a bunt down the first base line to win the game for NewYork, eliciting a chorus of expletives in Atlanta's clubhouse. But Reyes's atbat shows how he's developed. "He is the most improved player in the leaguethe last few years, by far," says Mets teammate Carlos Delgado. "In2005, when I was [with Florida], you looked at him as a guy who had a lot ofpotential--he can really run, he's got a strong arm--but then he'd swing atthree sliders in the dirt."
"There was astretch of time when he'd swing at particular pitches," agrees Bravesstarter John Smoltz. "Now, he doesn't." In 2005 Reyes, who's aswitch-hitter like Rollins, struck out 78 times and walked 27. Last year heimproved that ratio to 81 to 53. This season? He's walked 16 times and struckout only 11. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Reyes, who had a .442on-base percentage through Monday, has a chance to be only the second player inthe last 50 years to make the leap from a .300 or lower OBP to a .400 or betterOBP within two seasons (Rico Petrocelli did it in the late 1960s).
"I just try toget on base, no matter how," says Reyes, who attributes much of hisimprovement to the influence of Rickey Henderson, whom G.M. Omar Minaya hasbrought into camp for the past two springs to tutor Reyes in the art of leadoffhitting. "We talk about how to steal a base, how to take pitches, how tohit with two strikes--stuff he was doing when he played. He said, 'You cansteal 100 if you want to.'"
Rollins hasnoticed the impact that Henderson, whom Rollins idolized while growing upoutside Oakland, has had on Reyes. "His first year he was running,"Rollins says. "Now he's stealing."
"When he's atbat, infielders have to play shallower because he'll bunt or beat out mostground balls," explains Joe Girardi, the Yankees' TV analyst, who managedthe Marlins' last season. "When he's on base he upsets pitchers' rhythms.You'll see them throw over more, hold the ball more, pitch out more, which cancreate bad counts for them. He might even cause a change in pitch selection.Pitchers will throw fewer breaking balls because they're afraid he'llsteal."
Rockies rightyJosh Fogg describes the psychological torment Reyes inflicts on pitchers whenhe's standing on first. "You've got to be cognizant of him," Fogg says,"but you can't let yourself get in such a funk that you make bad pitches tothe next guy.... Him standing on second might not be the worst thing. I can seehim a little better at second base at least."
There is onecategory in which Ramirez may have an advantage over Reyes--of whom theNationals' Bowden says, "He will eventually be a 30-home-run hitter."Says first-year Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, "It wouldn't surprise meone day if we pick up the paper and we see, well, Hanley hit 40." Ramirez,who has played in just 179 major league games, appears to have the largest gapbetween his already impressive present and his future--especially if youconsider the view of second-year Braves starter Chuck James, who is one of onlyfour pitchers against whom Ramirez has had more than six at bats in his careerwithout a hit.
James possessesclear-eyed strategies on how to face Reyes ("I don't try to nibble, becauseyou don't want to walk him") and Rollins ("Every home run I've seen,he's pulled, so you almost have to go away from him"), but when it comes toRamirez, he's got no game plan.
"This guyyou're talking about, I can't even tell you what team he plays for," saysJames. "I don't remember ever facing him."
As Ramirezcontinues his progress through the upper echelon of major league shortstops,James, and the rest of baseball, will come to know his name as well as they doknow Rollins's and Reyes's. And soon.
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The trio represents the next step in the evolution ofthe shortstop. "They're unbelievably athletic, FREAKISHLY STRONG andfast."
Photograph by James Lang/US Presswire
DAVID BERGMAN; ERICK W. RASCO; HEINZ KLUETMEIER
AS EASY AS 1-2-3 (From left) Reyes, Rollins and Ramirez were the top 3 in the NL in runs through Monday.
J-ROLLING The elder statesman of the stars at short, Rollins led the NLin homers at week's end.
AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES
WAY, JOSE Reyes was one of the game's most prolific out-makers in '05 but his on-base percentage in '07 is well over .400.