GLENDALE, Ariz. — Hanley Ramirez believes Derek Jeter is irreplaceable.
"The respect I’ve got for Jeter, nobody’s going to replace him," Ramirez told me Thursday in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring clubhouse. "He’s unbelievable. It’s going to be hard to find another one like him. You can try. You can do everything you’ve got to do. But I don’t think so."
Yet, the New York Yankees will have a new shortstop in 2015. Already, the search is on. Thursday, the Yankees scouted a showcase for intriguing Cuban defector Aledmys Diaz, who will be cleared to sign with major-league teams within the week. The Yankees could acquire Jeter’s replacement during the 2014 season, allowing The Captain to mentor him before formally relinquishing the job.
Or they could wait until the offseason, when the best free-agent shortstop will be — Hanley Ramirez.
For now, at least, the Dodgers have what the Yankees want. But if the Dodgers are unable to sign Ramirez to an extension between now and the final out of the World Series, he will have the right to choose a new employer this winter. And the promise of a bidding war between the richest teams in baseball has a way of piquing the curiosity of prospective free agents.
Ramirez, 30, carries the self-assuredness of a man who once frittered away superstardom but has rediscovered it with a flourish. Ramirez posted MVP-caliber numbers when healthy last year — a 1.040 OPS in 86 games — while conducting himself with professionalism and class around teammates and the media. He has become the player and leader he had the potential to be.
He’s also incredibly savvy.
As soon as I mentioned Jeter’s retirement during our conversation Thursday morning, Ramirez smiled. He knew what was I was about to ask. But he began with a sincere, reverential tribute to a man he called his idol and hero.
"Everybody knows I grew up looking at Jeter," said Ramirez, almost 10 years his junior. "It’s why I wore No. 2 in Miami. He was my idol, my hero. We’re going to miss him on the field. He’s great on the field, off the field. Everybody’s going to miss him."
Then I reminded Ramirez that his own contract is about to expire. He laughed.
"Did you ever have any thought of maybe replacing him?" I asked.
"I just want to concentrate on the season," he said, still grinning a little. "I think we’ve got to go ahead. We [fell] short last year. You know, we want to win a championship here first and then see what’s going to happen in the offseason. Right now, it’s too far ahead. Right now, I’ve got to concentrate on my season. I think we’ve got a pretty good group of guys in here that wants to win. Everybody knows I want to stay here."
Why wouldn’t he? Ramirez rejuvenated his career in LA after arriving in a July 2012 trade with the Marlins. With Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and the Clayton Kershaw-led pitching staff, the Dodgers should be in the postseason more often than not over the next several years. You may have heard that they pay well, too: Kershaw just signed the largest pitching contract in baseball history, a cool $215 million over seven years.
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said Thursday that the Dodgers want to keep Ramirez "for a long time, but it takes two parties to figure all that out. And we’re not there yet. He"s been nothing but great with us. . . . We’ll keep it quiet like we did with Clayton, and we’ll go from there."
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, a six-time All-Star during his career with the Yankees, quipped that, yes, he’d start to get nervous if Ramirez starts asking about what it’s like to play in New York.
"It’s going to be a different year," Mattingly said. "I’m not part of any negotiations that are going on, but I have been in that situation. So, Hanley and I will be able to talk, make sure we’re always simplifying. He’s going to have to deal with the questions, things like that. But Hanley knows how to take care of his business on the field."
Mattingly was impressed to learn Ramirez had worn No. 2 as a tribute to Jeter.
"I like it," said Mattingly, who played with Jeter in 1995 and later coached him. "It shows a lot about Hanley, because I think Hanley has gotten — a few years ago — this rep of not being a good teammate and things like that. It shows you his role models. [With Hanley], we’ve seen nothing but a Derek Jeter-style player — a little different style, obviously, because he’s more flamboyant and coming from a different place. But we see a lot of the leadership qualities in Hanley. And it shows, now that you tell me, that he wants to be that kind of guy."
If there’s any knock on Ramirez, it’s that he was limited to 86 games during the 2013 regular season because of thumb, hamstring, lower back and shoulder injuries — even before suffering a fractured rib during the National League Championship Series. Ramirez, in fact, has played fewer than 100 games in two of the past three seasons. His market value — and, indeed, the Dodgers’ fortunes — hinge on his health in 2014.
"He’s already established himself as — when he’s on the field — one of the elite players in the game, regardless of position," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "What he did offensively last year in basically a half-season would have definitely catapulted him to being a runaway winner in the National League MVP, had he been healthy the entire time. If we can keep him on the field the entire season, it’s going to be an amazing presence for us in the middle of the lineup.
"Hanley’s such a joy to play with. He’s such a leader out there in the middle of the field, somebody I trust and count on to keep me involved in the game. He’s always somebody who comes to the mound [during conferences] and brings intensity and a strong desire to win that’s infectious to the rest of us. I’m so happy that he’s feeling great. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with."
For at least one more year, Ramirez’s thunderous bat and swagger at shortstop will belong to the resurgent Dodgers — a franchise winning and spending in ways it had forgotten during those final, pathetic years under Frank McCourt. But when the season is done, unless he’s signed an extension by then, it will be time to wonder if Ramirez is prepared to leave the Yankees of the West for, well, the Yankees of the East.
And so after he parried my first attempt at that question, I asked Ramirez to guarantee me another chance to ask after the Dodgers win the World Series.
"I will answer you," Ramirez said, "with what I’m going to do."
He smiled when he said that, too, in a way that made you wonder if he’s realized something else: Put up the same numbers he did in 2013, and very soon Hanley Ramirez will become the next shortstop no one is able to replace.