November 26, 2014 at 7:30 AM
Since SoxProspects.com launched in September 2003, fans have seen several elite prospects come through the Red Sox system. Our newer readers have followed players like Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts from the beginning of their careers, but only our longtime readers will remember the days when Hanley Ramirez (pictured) was the crown jewel of a top-heavy system. With Ramirez officially returning to the Red Sox on Monday, what better time to look back at the talented, at times mercurial star’s rise through the minors with the club.
Ramirez was signed in July 2000 at age 16 out of the Dominican Republic for a mere $20,000 by scout Levy Ochoa. He made his professional debut in 2001 in the Dominican Summer League, where he hit .345 with a .533 slugging percentage, hitting five home runs. For a player who received such a meager bonus, he certainly put himself on the map, and the Red Sox named him the Player of the Year for the DSL team.
Opening the next season in the Gulf Coast League, Ramirez terrorized the opposition, slashing .341/.402/.555 in 45 games. He led the league in slugging, and despite his being only 18, the Red Sox promoted him to Lowell, where he played the final 22 games of the season. He was just as good for the Spinners, batting .371/.400/.536, and after the season, Baseball America ranked him as the best prospect in the Red Sox system, as well as the best prospect in the GCL and New York-Penn League, and he shot to the number 19 spot on their Top 100 list.
No longer under the radar after his stateside debut, Ramirez was already drawing comparisons to players like Alfonso Soriano and Alex Rodriguez. Ramirez struggled to adjust to the spotlight, and he was sent home from the Fall Instructional League after he cursed at a trainer, the first sign of the attitude issues that would dog him for the rest of his time with the Red Sox and beyond.
Ramirez’s full-season debut got off to a rocky start, as he struggled through the first month of the season with the Low A Augusta GreenJackets before being sent to extended spring training after making an obscene gesture to some fans. He returned two weeks later and eventually finished the year with a .275/.327/.403 line in 111 games with the GreenJackets. It was a disappointing season for fans expecting superstar-level production, but his numbers were solid for a 19-year-old, and based on his five-tool potential, Baseball America still ranked him as the top prospect in the system, slotting him 39th on the Top 100. SoxProspects.com was more bearish on his stock in its initial lists—after ranking him second in the system after the site’s launch, he fell to sixth in the system at season’s end, behind four future major leaguers in Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Lester, Kevin Youkilis, and Kelly Shoppach… as well as third baseman Chad Spann.
The 2004 season got off to another rough start for Ramirez, as he suffered a hairline fracture in his wrist on May 1 after falling while running the bases. He missed seven weeks, and when he returned to the High A Sarasota Red Sox of the Florida State League at the end of June after a brief rehab stint, he was as hot as the weather. He finished with a .310 average in Sarasota over 62 games, and he did not miss a beat when he was promoted to Portland near the end of the season, batting .310/.360/.512 in 32 games. The awards came pouring in after the season, as he was named the Sarasota Red Sox Player of the Year, a Florida State League All-Star, and took his place as the top ranked prospect in the system by both Baseball America and SoxProspects.com. He reached his all-time high on Baseball America’s Top 100 list, coming in at number 10.
Now 21, Ramirez combined with Dustin Pedroia to form one of the best middle infield combinations the Eastern League has ever seen as part of a loaded Portland Sea Dogs roster that eventually turned out 15 major leaguers. David Murphy and Brandon Moss manned the outfield, while Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, and Anibal Sanchez all slotted into the rotation for the Sea Dogs. Hanley held his own all year, finishing with a .271/.335/.385 line in Portland, and he was called up to the Red Sox in September, striking out in his only two at-bats. While his performance was not spectacular, he was still named an Eastern League All-Star, and he also appeared in the Futures Game that summer, getting a hit in his lone at-bat.
When Ramirez was traded to Florida in November of 2005 with Sanchez, Jesus Delgado, and Harvey Garcia for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota, he had slipped to fourth in the SoxProspects.com rankings, behind Papelbon, Lester, and Sanchez. His ceiling was still considered just as high, if not higher, than any of those three, but his odds of reaching that ceiling were considered to have slipped some in 2005. Questions remained about his attitude, and with his production lagging behind his hype, some wondered if Ramirez would ever live up to the monumental potential of his tools. Even after the trade, Baseball America ranked Ramirez second in the Marlins organization behind Jeremy Hermida, although still ranked 30th in the publication’s list of the top prospects in the game.
The Marlins took a chance on his potential, promoting him directly to the majors for opening day 2006, and he responded by winning Rookie of the Year. He has since been named to three All-Star teams, and he has finished in the top-11 of the MVP voting four times, including a second-place finish in 2009 behind Albert Pujols.
By signing a four-year, $88 million dollar deal with a club option for another $22 million—quite a long way from that first $20,000 bonus—Ramirez now returns to the place where he made his major league debut over nine years ago. It looks like those who would have projected Ramirez to hit at the heart of the Red Sox order ten years down the road have been proven right after all.
Photo Credit: Hanley Ramirez, and Hanley Ramirez and David Ortiz by Kelly O'Connor