LOS ANGELES -- On this date a year ago, Hanley Ramirez was batting .363. The Dodgers loved him, and vice versa. The playoffs would happen, and then the contract extension.
The playoffs happened. The new contract never did.
That sets up what could be the most intriguing free-agent drama this off-season. Ramirez might well be the best bat available, but the caution lights -- his injury history, concern over his willingness to acknowledge his defensive limitations, and the possibility that signing him could require forfeiting a top draft pick -- could make for a fascinating dynamic in the market.
Ramirez and the Dodgers have tabled negotiations until the season is over, Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. Ramirez is on the disabled list because of an oblique strain; the Dodgers hope he can return in one to two weeks.
"We love Hanley," Kasten said." There is still lots of time this season for him to make a big impact in September, and hopefully in October.
"Both sides have agreed we'll sit down and talk at the end of the season and decide. We both decided that makes the most sense. As difficult a season as he's had physically, there is still lots of time for him to have an enormous impact for us."
Adam Katz, the agent for Ramirez, declined to comment. Ramirez, twice asked Friday whether he had a few moments for an interview, declined to acknowledge the reporter.
Ramirez will be 31 when next season starts. After playing at least 140 games in each of his first five full seasons, he will have done so once in the four seasons preceding his free agency. His injuries: thumb, hamstring, back and ribs last year; thumb, calf, shoulder and oblique this year.
He still has enough at-bats this year to qualify among major league leaders, with a .277 batting average, 12 home runs and an .822 OPS. No other shortstop has an OPS above .800.
"He'd be one of the best bats in the market, if not the best," a baseball insider said. The alternatives include outfielders Melky Cabrera and Nelson Cruz, designated hitter Victor Martinez, and third basemen Chase Headley and Pablo Sandoval.
The Los Angeles Times surveyed six baseball insiders, a mix of agents and club officials, to get a sense of the market that awaited Ramirez. For every one, the eye test agreed with advanced defensive metrics: Ramirez is a below-average shortstop, and not getting better.
Unless Ramirez sells himself as a premium hitter willing to play anywhere in the field, he might not get more than two years, one of the insiders said.
"He wants to play shortstop," that person said. "I think that's going to be a hurdle. I don't know if anyone is going to buy into a shortstop contract."
While the conventional wisdom is that Ramirez can move to third base, two of the people surveyed by The Times suggested he might no longer have the quick instincts or arm strength necessary to excel at that position. Ramirez rarely throws overhand these days, although that could change if he can recover the strength in his injured right shoulder.
One of those people pointed to first base or left field as possible positions for Ramirez; another suggested second base. If he were to sign with an American League team, designated hitter also would be an option. Of course, a premium bat is worth more at shortstop than at first base, third base, left field or DH.
In May, CBS Sports reported Ramirez had asked the Dodgers for more than $100 million in an extension.
The consensus on what a Ramirez contract might look like now, from The Times' panel: two to three years, at about $15 million per year. The low guess: two years and $20 million. The high guess: three years and $60 million.
That would put the Dodgers in a good position to extend a qualifying offer to Ramirez. If he accepts, he returns for one year, at about $15 million, with incentive to stay healthy and play well for another shot at cashing in for the long term. If he declines, and no player ever has accepted a qualifying offer, the Dodgers get two top draft picks to stock a rebounding minor league system.
By the end of next year, Corey Seager, the most untouchable of the Dodgers' prospects, could be ready to take over shortstop or third base. When Matt Kemp turns 30 next month, the only Dodgers regulars under 30 will be Dee Gordon and Yasiel Puig.
In 2013, when Ramirez was posting an OPS over 1.000 and the Dodgers were rolling, he was so valuable that their season basically ended in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, when he was hit in the ribs by a pitch from Joe Kelly of the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 2014, one of the insiders said, "It would be interesting to see what the Dodgers' record is with and without him. I bet it's not that different."
When Ramirez starts, the Dodgers are 53-41 (.564). When he does not, they are 17-13 (.567), through Friday.
Ramirez hit .370 in September, then .500 in the first round of the playoffs, as the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves. If he can deliver anything that resembles a reprise, well played could mean well paid.
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