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Already great, Hanley is getting better

Already great, Hanley is getting better

MIAMI -- He has started back-to-back All-Star Games, put up early numbers comparable to some of the best ever at his position, is a popular No.1 pick in fantasy leagues and is having the season of his life.

But what may be unnerving to some of history's greatest shortstops is this: Hanley Ramirez is still getting better.

"Every time I see him, he does something that's very impressive," Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said. "He's got all the tools -- everything."

In one 6-foot-3, 225-pound body, Ramirez can hit for average like Derek Jeter, drive the ball out of the park like Ernie Banks, run like Honus Wagner and play above-average defense -- perhaps not Ozzie Smith-like, but very respectable, after some major improvements.

There is a favorable chance that by the time Ramirez hangs it up -- depending on many factors, one of them being how long he stays at his physically demanding position -- he could go down as the best shortstop ever.

"When you start thinking about the body of work that he's put together at this point, the fact that he's 25, barring injury, he's got a chance to really establish himself as one of the top guys ever to play the position," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "All indications are, at this point, that this kid's got a chance to do something special for a long time."

Yet Ramirez is still under the radar in some ways. His face isn't all over commercials or gracing many magazine covers, and his name hasn't reached the same level of fame as Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez.

A lot of that has to do with where he plays.

Ramirez suits up for the smaller-market Marlins, a team that is rarely on national TV and hasn't reached the postseason in six years -- though their young, exciting crop of players keeps them in the running almost every August and September.

The Florida market just isn't comparable to that of, say, the Boston Red Sox, the organization he came up with.

But Ramirez insists the lack of added attention doesn't bother him in the slightest. He called the endorsements and commercials and other extracurricular activities of a high-paying professional sport "stupid," rhetorically asking this question: "What do you get paid for? To help your team win ballgames. So that's what you have to worry about."

Besides, his colleagues are aware of how good he is.

"As baseball players, we know," Rockies first baseman Todd Helton said. "It doesn't take SportsCenter for us to know when a player is really good -- he is."

Banks, the former Cubs great, only met Ramirez once, but he had some high praise for the 25-year-old. He called him easily the greatest player in today's game, said he expects him to go down as the best shortstop of all time and when asked how he compares Ramirez to himself, Banks replied: "Oh, he's much better than me. When I look at him play, I sit up there in the stands and in the press box, and I say, 'Boy, I wish that was me.'"

His offense

In his fourth year, Ramirez is poised to be the first National League shortstop to win a batting title in 49 years while sporting an NL-leading .356 batting average, and he's on pace to finish with 25 home runs, a career-high 110 RBIs and 28 stolen bases -- despite putting on about 25 pounds this offseason to prepare to be a No. 3 hitter for the first time.

"He reminds me of myself when I was young because he uses all the fields," said Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez, who was with the Red Sox when Hanley was starting out. "He's just faster. Maybe even stronger."

"He continues to get better, year in and year out," Jeter said at this year's All-Star Game in St. Louis. "Baseball is such a numbers game, and I think people focus too much on numbers. You can be a better player and not put up huge numbers. But he just so happens to be putting up huge numbers on top of that."

There's still plenty of baseball left for the Dominican Republic native. But projecting based on his first three years, Ramirez could end up with 469 home runs and 3,439 hits if he keeps the same averages for 15 more seasons, including this one -- which would be until he's 39.

That hits total would be sixth all-time and the most by a shortstop, though Jeter -- with 2,729 hits at age 35 -- and Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins -- still up-and-coming -- can present challenges. In terms of home runs, he could easily have the most exclusively from the shortstop position if he stays there, besting Cal Ripken Jr.'s 345 and even topping the Hall of Famer's career mark of 431.

"I'd say he has better tools than Cal Ripken," Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton said. "He could hit the ball out of the ballpark. Cal could, too, but not like this."

The following question, then, is a legitimate one: Can Ramirez go down as the greatest shortstop of all-time?

"Yes, he could," Banks, a Hall of Famer, asserted. "And that goes way back to Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Derek Jeter, all those guys."

"I believe so, yeah," Hall of Famer and Marlins special assistant Tony Perez added. "He's got a lot of talent. He's got all the tools, and he's a guy who's still young, improving every year."

But Ramirez would never volunteer that notion.

The Marlins' shortstop comes off as strangely care-free, and he normally carries around a sort of nonchalant demeanor that makes it hard for outsiders to identify the aggression and drive that make him one of the game's best players.

It isn't swagger, and it definitely isn't laziness. More like boredom. Perhaps this intricate game just comes that easy to him.

But though the toughest of pitchers or the biggest of moments don't seem to shake Ramirez, his comfort is relinquished as soon as you ask him anything regarding himself.

"I don't like when people ask those type of questions about me," Ramirez said, when presented with the possibility of one day being the best at his position. "I don't like to talk about me. I just let other people talk about me, you know?"

His defense

Over Ramirez's first few years, the one negative some people talked about was his glove work. But after committing no fewer than 22 errors his first three seasons in the big leagues, he had just nine through Sept. 17, which is tied for sixth-fewest among shortstops who qualify.

Also, his .983 fielding percentage was seventh in the Majors among shortstops going into Thursday.

"He may have made a few errors in the past, but I think he is an excellent fielder, and his hitting speaks for itself," Ripken said via e-mail.

"He is only 25 years old, and he is having his best season defensively."

Ramirez's error count his first three years was 72. But Smith's was 69, Ripken's was 77 and Banks' was 81 in their first three full seasons at shortstop.

"I think he plays great shortstop," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Plenty good."

Perhaps not totally great yet, but definitely improving after his error count has decreased by two each of the past three years and plummeted so far this season.

Though he's ranked 12th and tied for 14th, respectively, among big league shortstops each of the past two years based on Ultimate Zone Rating, his number in that department has increased, from -.7 to 2.4 in the latest update, despite nursing hamstring issues that probably won't go away all year.

"You can see there's so much there," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He makes it look easy to do what he does. Defense, offense, he's just a high-end guy."

Ramirez says, "If you want to be better, you have to stay on top and keep working. ... In the big leagues, you have to play defense."

But does he have to stay at shortstop?

History shows big league clubs are not always willing to sacrifice a player's run production for his defense. So when a shortstop starts putting up big power numbers and puts on weight to do so more effectively, they're sometimes moved out of the demanding position, either because range is affected or simply because the wear and tear is greater there.

There are varying viewpoints as to whether or not that will be the case for Ramirez, but Chipper Jones says "yes."

"I think he's going to be one of those guys that eventually moves," the Braves' third baseman said. "Hanley is still growing, he's still getting bigger. And I think it depends on the status of the organization. If they have some slick-fielding shortstop that comes up and swings a pretty good bat as well, they can have a problem."

Moving day -- for different reasons -- came for active players like A-Rod, Nomar Garciaparra and Michael Young. Also, Ripken moved to third base full-time for his last five years, Robin Yount moved to the outfield in his 12th season and Banks moved to first base after eight full seasons playing mostly shortstop.

A-Rod, in particular, was on track to possibly be the greatest shortstop ever, but now it looks like he'll end up spending most of his career at third base. That opens the door for Ramirez, who's going to have to stay put for a long time if he wants a chance at that subjective honor.

But Ramirez isn't the type of guy who likes to look too deep into the future, or ponder ifs, ands or buts.

"You think I think that far?" he said when asked if he can see himself eventually playing another position. "I'm a shortstop. That's all I can say."

His future

Shortstop or not, Ramirez knows he's staying in South Florida, a market he chose to continue to be a part of when he signed a six-year, $70 million extension last year.

The contract runs through Ramirez's arbitration years, locks up his first three years of free agency and guarantees he'll be the franchise player when his team moves into its new stadium for the 2012 season.

The Marlins -- at the bottom of the league in payroll the past few years -- aren't known for handing out contracts like these. But while many baseball fans and media outlets outside of South Florida are still coming to grips with Ramirez's talents, Florida's front office knows what type of player he is.

He's the type you can't let get away.

"I think Hanley is a special talent, and Jeffrey Loria, our owner, and everybody else in the organization realized that he was a special talent, and he was someone that we wanted to make sure was wearing a Marlins uniform for a long time," Marlins general manager Michael Hill said.

Added fellow teammate and All-Star Josh Johnson: "He knows what his future is, he knows he's going to stay here -- he's going to be here for a long time -- and he knows that he's the centerpiece here. He's the man."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Bryan Hoch and Ken Gurnick contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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