Hanley enjoying time playing for Dominican Republic
Dodgers infielder putting in extra work this winter, though not at shortstop
HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- Hanley Ramirez was all smiles Saturday. His Dominican team, the reigning champion Leones del Escogido, had just moved to 2-0 in this Caribbean Series with a 6-2 win over Puerto Rico, and the heralded infielder was sharing laughs with coaches, engaging with fans and even yucking it up with the Spanish press here at Estadio Sonora.
About 750 miles northwest, though, a Dodgers front office grows uneasy as its prized asset continues to play games outside the U.S. and away from shortstop.
Ramirez, naturally oblivious, seemingly feels none of that.
Only national pride.
"It's all about representing the Dominican Republic," he said in Spanish. "I give everything for my country. You see a lot of players here in Mexico do the same. That's a beautiful thing, when you sport your flag and your country across your chest."
Coming off a season that began with a move to third base with the Marlins and ended with a return to shortstop in Los Angeles, Ramirez's national pride has been unquestioned, suiting up for his native Dominican Republic in winter ball, the Caribbean Series and, next month, the World Baseball Classic.
So, heading into the 2013 campaign -- when he looks to improve on last year's uncharacteristic .257/.322/.437 slash line -- Ramirez will have a lot of game action under his belt. Problem is, very little of it will come at shortstop -- a position he's struggled at the last few years and one the Dodgers expect him to play in 2013.
A minor shoulder injury relegated Ramirez to designated-hitter duties in winter ball, and in this seven-day tournament, with Miguel Tejada the starting shortstop and Julio Lugo a suitable backup, he'll mostly stay there. He probably won't get any time at shorstop during the Classic, either. Not with Jose Reyes and Erick Aybar on the team.
And that event could keep Ramirez out of Dodgers camp from late February to mid-March.
"It's really hard to say, 'Don't play for your country,'" Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said at a charity event this offseason. "I'm kind of torn. Selfishly, I'd like Hanley to be in camp playing short every day."
But Escogido manager Audo Vicente, who has a long-standing relationship with Ramirez, stresses the three-time All-Star will be fine at shortstop because of his athleticism and his familiarity with the position. In fact, Vicente plans to give him a rare start there on Sunday, when his squad takes on Mexico -- now 1-1 after a 4-3 walk-off loss to Venezuela on Saturday -- in a game that will air on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. MT.
While watching Ramirez in this setting, Vicente sees a player who's motivated to return to prominence.
"He knows the expectations he's going to face," Vicente said in Spanish. "He's a player who has established himself in the big leagues, but he wants to keep putting up good numbers. He wants to keep having success in the big leagues, and that's why he's preparing so hard in the offseason and playing in the Classic and here in the Caribbean Series.
"I feel like he's going to have a really good season this year, based on how I've seen him work."
Will playing so much in the winter and spring cause Ramirez to tire out or perhaps break down, as Major League Baseball's long regular season ensues? Or will it provide the kind of repetition that can lead to a bounce-back year?
That remains to be seen, but Lugo believes these games are about more than just national pride for Ramirez.
"I think he understands that he needs to play," Lugo said. "He's been hurt. And the only way you can stay in baseball shape is by playing. I give him credit, because it's not easy to play in winter ball, play all these games, and then think about playing all those games in the regular season."
The Dodgers will be stacked this regular season. They have Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford in their lineup, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in their rotation, and more than $210 million tied to their payroll.
"The front office has put together an incredible team," Ramirez said. "They've put together the best team in the game. Now we have to get the job done on the field."
And to do that, they'll need a healthy, productive and defensively adept Ramirez.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.