The return of Hanley Ramirez to Fenway Park was hardly spectacular. During a three-game series with the Marlins, the superstar shortstop collected just two hits in 10 at-bats with a pair of walks and a pair of strikeouts.
Nonetheless, that modest performance made no less fascinating the “what-if” game that can be played with Ramirez, particularly in a season when the position he occupies for the Marlins has been one of weakness for the Red Sox this year.
Any misgivings the Sox might have had about dealing Ramirez officially became a footnote when the team won the 2007 World Series thanks largely to the contributions of Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell that October. Flags, as they say, fly forever.
Still, the notion of the 25-year-old Ramirez – the 2006 Rookie of the Year and a two-time top-11 finisher in MVP voting – manning the Sox’ middle infield with 25-year-old Dustin Pedroia behind 25-year-old pitcher Jon Lester and 28-year-old closer Jonathan Papelbon is a compelling one. Such a nucleus would offer a nice foundation for championship visions for years to come.
Of course, that group has been together before. In 2005, when all three players were 21, they were part of a ridiculously talented Portland Sea Dogs team that offered the most tangible evidence that the “scouting and player development machine” envisioned by G.M. Theo Epstein was becoming a reality.
The 2005 Sea Dogs won their first 10 games of the season en route to a 76-66 season, losing in the Double-A Eastern League championship series to the Indians’ affiliate in Akron. Yet that performance barely scratches the surface in defining how good the group was and is.
The 2005 Sea Dogs have produced 18 major leaguers in the past four seasons, including three All-Stars (Papelbon, Pedroia, Ramirez), two Rookies of the Year (Pedroia, Ramirez), an MVP (Pedroia) and two pitchers who have thrown no-hitters (Lester and Anibal Sanchez, the latter of whom went to the Marlins with Ramirez in the deal for Beckett and Lowell).
The big-league impact has certainly not been limited to the most famous four alumni of that team. Players such as Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Manny Delcarmen and Cla Meredith are all now established major leaguers. From top to bottom, it was a group that featured dazzling abilities.
“I knew we were good,” said Pedroia. “The Red Sox were kind of loading up, having good draft classes. The players were starting to develop at the right time and we were all on the same team. I think everyone knew that we would have a pretty good chance to get to the major leagues and help the team win.”
“That was amazing…That whole team was a big-league team,” observed pitcher Charlie Zink, who reached the majors with the Sox last year. “(There was) a ton of talent. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how good everyone would have turned out to be, but it was a very loaded group.”
Yet while that Sea Dogs team, if kept together, would have been good enough to field a competitive big-league roster on most days, four players separated themselves. The notion of a team stocked with Papelbon and Lester, Pedroia and Ramirez at the same time is little short of remarkable.
The group offered a signal of a shift in the way in which the Red Sox would win.
“I think that year definitely did it for a lot of guys,” said Lester. “It all started back then with guys’ hard work. It carried over to everyone performing and everyone being ready to play in the big leagues…(The 2005 season) was the foundation for a lot of us.”
PAPELBON AND LESTER
The Sea Dogs featured a wealth of talented pitchers who forged a steady line to the majors. All five members of the Opening Day rotation reached the majors. Anibal Sanchez, who later joined the rotation, threw a no-hitter in 2006. (The Marlins left-hander is currently injured but is readying to being a throwing program.)
But for Denney Tomori, two pitchers, in particular, puzzled him.
Tomori signed to come to the Sox from Japan after a 14-year career in the NPB. The right-hander, then 37, split his season between Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, forging a 3.42 ERA in 19 games out of the Sea Dogs bullpen.
Still, in his first taste of professional baseball in the U.S., he could not understand why he was a teammate of Lester and Papelbon in Double-A.
“I was really doubting why (Papelbon and Lester) were there,” Tomori said this spring. “Seven innings, two hits. Everytime they would pitch, two hits, one run, shutout. Why (are they) in the minor leagues?”
Lester was the Sox’ top draft pick in 2002, while Papelbon was a fourth-round selection in 2003. Both had made immediate impressions on those who encountered them in the team’s farm system.
“I remember like it was yesterday the first time that Jon Lester put on a Red Sox uniform and was a part of the Gulf Coast Instructional League, “ recalled Sox roving pitching instructor Goose Gregson. “First time Papelbon stepped on the field in Lowell, wore that uniform for the first time, same thing.
“The two of them immediately got my attention. In 38 years, I don’t remember two pitchers grabbing my attention that quickly and that early in their careers,” he continued. “I did not know that (Papelbon) was going to get to the big leagues as quickly as he did and have the success that he did, but both he and Jon Lester carried themselves in a way that very few minor leaguers that I’ve been around – this is my 38th year now – very few minor leaguers made that kind of impression on me that early in their career that you could actually envision them being successful at the major league level. It’s hard to describe.”
Both pitchers enjoyed breakthroughs that year. Papelbon had enjoyed an excellent 2004 season in high-A Sarasota, going 12-7 with 153 strikeouts and a 2.63 ERA in 130 innings. Still, he had shown no real feel for a breaking pitch, and so his success was largely on the strength of his ability to overpower opponents with his dynamic fastball.
Yet Papelbon spent some time around big-league camp before the 2005 season with Curt Schilling, and talked with the veteran about grips for a split-finger fastball. He began to employ the pitch with great effect in 2005, and the addition was a key component of his successful adaptation (5-2, 2.48 ERA in 14 starts) to the Eastern League.
“it was my split that started to click,” said Papelbon. “Along with that, (I) built confidence. Then my confidence started to click. It started snowballing into my mental side of the game.”
That combination fast-tracked Papelbon. He would ascend to Triple-A and the majors in ’05, first as a starter (2.25 ERA in three starts) and then, in a role that made an indelible impression, as a reliever.
Prior to 2005, Lester’s progress through the minors had been somewhat less rapid than Papelbon’s. Even so, that was not unexpected.
He was a high-school product from the Northwest, a place where weather prevents players from staying on the field for more than a few months a year and so often stunts their development.
“It wasn’t without its bumps and bruises (for Lester), but still, it was a steady progression,” said Gregson. “The progression was expected to take a little longer for Jon Lester.”
Lester acknowledges that he had a lot of learning to do about his mechanics and about the mental side of the game. He went to the Alabama Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham – where he first encountered current Sox assistant trainer Mike Reinold – to have his mechanics broken down to be studied for inefficiencies.
Even as Lester faced many adjustments, the Sox were well aware that the left-hander was immensely talented. The fact that he had gone 7-6 with a 4.30 ERA as a 20-year-old in High-A Sarasota in 2004 spoke volumes about his abilities. The Sox weren’t the only ones who were impressed.
“He was the centerpiece in a lot of trade rumors as far as a desirable guy for a lot of organizations,” said Todd Claus, who managed in Sarasota in 2004 and then in Portland in 2005. “At that point in Sarasota, there was a lot of brass coming in to see him, hoping to get him before he had success at the next level.”
Though the Sox had agreed to include Lester – along with Manny Ramirez – in an abortive trade before the 2004 season, they held on to him in order to enjoy the fruits of a breakout 2005 season, when the fruits of his labors became evident. At 21, Lester spent the entire year in Double-A. He was incredible en route to Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors, going 11-6 with a 2.61 ERA.
“It was just a year where everything seemed to click,” said Lester. “The mental things that we were working on the previous year in ’04 carried over. It seemed to be a big stepping stone to get me where I’m at.”
Claus recalled that Lester began to incorporate his cutter to significant effect that year. The pitch almost immediately became a dominant offering, eliciting both swings and misses and grounders. His fastball velocity also improved, as the young lefty began touching the mid-90s on occasion with his fastball.
As a result, the conversations between Claus and his coaching staff – both in Sarasota and again in Portland – were lively, but not definitive.
“We would have that debate all the time in the clubhouse: Lester or Papelbon? If you had to give up one and keep one, who would you choose? It was quite the debate,” said Claus. “You can probably still have that debate about who’s more valuable.”
Of course, back then the question was simply one of projection. Now, with both players achieving dominance at the big-league level, it revolves more around whether a team places more value in an emergent ace-caliber starter or a closer whose early career has been historically good.
For a single minor-league team to yield just one such pair of players would qualify as little short of extraordinary. The fact that there are two other stars who generate similarly impassioned debates from that 2005 Sea Dogs team is almost unfathomable.
DUSTIN PEDROIA AND HANLEY RAMIREZ
For half a season, Pedroia and Ramirez were a fascinating pair in the middle of the Sea Dogs infield.
“They’re kind of contrasts, Hanley and Pedroia, in a lot of ways,” said Sox G.M. Epstein. “But they’re both great players.”
Their paths to elite status were very, very different. On first glance, Pedroia prompted nothing but skepticism and jokes about his stature. That was certainly the case for Claus when he first encountered the Sox’ top pick in the 2004 draft as the manager of Boston’s high-A affiliate in Sarasota the year before.
“It’s a natural reaction when you see him for the first time to say that it’s not human what he does,” said Claus. “When Pedroia (into the system), I didn’t even think it was a slam dunk that he was going to play in the big leagues. After he went and played 50 games at shortstop and didn’t make an error, and came to play everyday with the same energy he had in Boston, he just forced you to watch him. He always seemed to be in the middle of something when we were scoring runs.”
Still, Pedroia was perceived as being a guy with few natural tools. He could field very well (he was NCAA Defensive Player of the Year as a shortstop at Arizona State) and he seemed to be able to put the bat on the ball, but it was easy to look at him and conclude that he had below averge speed, power and arm strength.
But his yearning to maximize his talents became immediately apparent. After he was drafted in 2004, he tore up both low-A August and then, following a very quick promotion, did the same in Sarasota, hitting a combined .357 with a .961 OPS at the two levels.
As a result, he started at Double-A Portland in 2005, just months into his professional career. It was there that Pedroia – who hit .324 with an OPS over .900 in Portland to earn a mid-year promotion to Triple-A – played with Ramirez.
Everyone was convinced that Ramirez had superstar potential. That notion was reinforced in dramatic fashion at the All-Star Futures Game in Detroit in 2005.
“When he went to the Futures Game for his first year, I think if you talked to any scout or GM after he took batting practice, he was a man among boys, it was a different sound off his bat, the ball absolutely exploded off his bat,” said Claus. “He became a physical specimen and it was a man playing with boys in the futures game. When the stage got bigger, Hanley played better. Playing in front of 100 fans and it’s 35 degrees, Hanley didn’t always want to show up to play but when he did, when the stage got big, he was the best player on the field. I don’t think his tools were ever in question.”
Because Ramirez had so much talent, he frustrated his teammates. His play would sometimes lack focus or commitment. He had the air of a superstar at a time when he was still just a pup.
In 2004, Ramirez had enjoyed a remarkable debut in Portland. Following a mid-year promotion from Sarasota, he hit .310 with an .871 OPS, his power numbers ticking up when the 20-year-old faced more advanced competition.
But in 2005, he seemed to step backwards while approaching the games at time with what some considered indifference. He hit .271 with a .720 OPS, and hit just six homers. He had already been suspended by the Sox on a couple of occasions, and some of his teammates took umbrage at his approach to the game.
“I could see that he had potential but he was such a baby and I was threatening to beat him up every other day,” said Jeff Bailey, who was a catcher on the 2005 Sea Dogs. “He would do stupid things on and off the field, every time I saw him doing something stupid I would tell him he was a piece of (expletive).”
Obviously, the Sox would have preferred that Ramirez avoid the character questions that seemed to dog him. Even so, the organization also tried to maintain perspective: Ramirez had been ordained the next huge thing, earning the title of the organization’s top prospect in three straight years by the time he was 21.
It is fair to suggest that he was immature, but it might be unfair to have expected him not to be.
“There’s no doubt that Hanley wasn’t a guy you could just leave alone and say, ‘Hanley’s going to show up on time and get his work done and play hard tonight.’
You had to stay on him,” said Claus. “You never really had to do that with Pedroia, but Pedroia went to college for three years in a totally different atmosphere. He learned how to play the game in college. The Red Sox to some degree were Hanley’s college and so you’re sort of comparing apples to oranges there
“Hanley having the label of the Red Sox’ top prospect for three years in a row, most kids should have been in high school. Hanley dealt with a lot of publicity and ink and a lot of media, and I think anyone in his situation probably would have dealt with the same problems.”
Claus and the organization maintained that long-term perspective, and viewed Ramirez as a potential superstar. Even so, much to their surprise, Claus an dhis staff found themselves arguing about whether Ramirez would become the best middle infielder to emerge from the ’05 Sea Dogs.
“I think almost 100 out of 100 scouts would have taken Hanley over Pedroia all day long, just because of the physical tools,” said Claus. “Dustin didn’t run well, he didn’t throw well, he swung hard. I think a lot of guys would have questioned his durability for a full season, whether he could play shortstop, whether he could hit because of his max-effort swing.
“When we turned in our pref list at the end of the year, there was a debate about whether Pedroia should be above Hanley, mostly because of the makeup and because the guy just had a knack for hitting the center of the baseball no matter where it’s pitched. He’s one of the freakish guys that can just center a baseball anywhere in the strike zone. He just doesn’t have a hole.
“Pedroia forced you to think about putting him in front of Hanley. Physically, that shouldn’t happen. But it’s just the kind of player he was and still is.”
JUST A BEGINNING
That one of the players in that group of four superstars in the making has been dealt by the Sox is unsurprising. If anything, it is more surprising – at least from the vantage point of the Boston organization prior to the 2005 season – that just one of those four players was dealt.
Entering 2005, Boston had just one home-grown product on its roster: Kevin Youkilis. The players who would star in Portland that year couldn’t imagine those ranks swelling rapidly.
“When I was brought into this organization, there was a motto of, ‘You’ll be traded in two years,’” said Lester. “I almost was—a couple times. (But) this ownership cares about its young guys and wants its young guys to succeed.”
In May, the Sox summoned reliever Cla Meredith from Portland. Though the submarining right-hander struggled in his brief cameo, he represented the first indication of a new operating philosophy for the Sox.
Papelbon received his big-league summons later that summer, Ramirez made his big-league debut with the Sox towards the end of the campaign (before being traded to the Marlins that winter), and Pedroia and Lester were both called up in 2006.
The core of Boston’s recent success, fueled by contributions from homegrown players (both through their contributions as Sox and as trade fodder), first came to the fore in a Portland team whose immense talent has become even more extraordinary with the passing of a few years.
“I knew there was an extreme amount of talent on that team, and I knew that eventually, as people got their chances and players got their chances, a lot of these guys would be in the big leagues,” said Papelbon. “If you would have taken that team and said we’re going to have an American League MVP, two Rookies of the Year, two DHL Delivery Man of the Year awards, All-Star games, two no-hitters, all that – I don’t think anybody would have expected that.
“(But) it was a system that (Epstein and the front office) put in place. They weren’t going to waver from that system,” Papelbon continued. “Now that system is constantly producing kids in the minor leagues, and that system is also producing All-Star and MVP talent.”