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It's 5 p.m. on April 24, and the Florida Marlins are doing what they normally do when it's 5 p.m. and they are in Miami: They're taking batting practice. The Marlins, somewhat unexpectedly, boast one of baseball's most explosive offenses--at week's end they led the majors in extra-base hits (97) and slugging percentage (.475)--and this afternoon that potency is on full display. Miguel Cabrera, the hulking 24-year-old third baseman who's averaged 31 home runs the past three seasons, launches ball after soaring ball, many of which land in the outfield seats at Dolphin Stadium. Dan Uggla, the second-year second baseman with the circus strongman forearms, does the same. There is something metronomically workaday about the process: Step in, take a few hacks, let the next guy have a go, repeat. Then Hanley Ramirez enters the cage.
The BP cuts by Ramirez, the 23-year-old reigning National League Rookie of the Year whom the Marlins acquired from the Red Sox two winters ago in a deal that centered on ace Josh Beckett, look, and even sound, different. His superior bat speed enables him to wait a split second longer than most hitters, and when he finally uncoils, the crack of bat meeting ball sounds sharper than usual, more staccato. During this session he hits nearly every ball so perfectly and so hard, to all fields and, often enough, over the fence, that in the seconds before his next swing you can only think, What kind of pitcher could possibly give this guy trouble?
Says Ramirez, "Right now, I don't think there is one. I'm feeling pretty great when I step up to home plate." His numbers in April bore that out. He hit lefties (at a .474 clip). He hit righties (.343). He hit at home (.302). He hit on the road (.429). He hit during the day (.429). He hit at night (.343). In all, he batted .364, with a .462 OBP, four homers, 13 extra-base hits and six steals.
"I was with the Mariners when A-Rod came up, and the special guys, they stand out right away," says Marlins G.M. Larry Beinfest, who first saw Ramirez play three years ago with the Red Sox' Single A affiliate in Sarasota. "Hanley stood out right away."
It's a testament to Ramirez's blossoming maturity that when a reporter presses Jim Presley, the Marlins' hitting coach, for one way in which Ramirez might improve as a hitter, Presley is momentarily stumped. Finally, he suggests, without great conviction, that Ramirez might consider bunting more often. Combine Ramirez's precocious hitting talent with his rapidly improving plate discipline (he's on pace to walk 91 times this season, 35 more than last year), his speed (he stole 51 bases in '06) and his above-average range and powerful, accurate arm, and you'd think that Ramirez should have a choke hold on the NL's starting shortstop spot in the All-Star Game for the next decade.
Unfortunately for Ramirez, he's got a little competition for that honor. As hot as he has been to start the season, NL East rivals Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies and Jose Reyes of the Mets have been equally scorching. Through April, Ramirez's 26 runs scored tied him for first in the league--with Rollins and Reyes. (A fourth NL East shortstop, Atlanta's Edgar Renteria, also ranked in the league's top 10, with 17). Rollins's nine homers led the league; Reyes's 17 stolen bases led baseball. "I tell Reyes, you and me, it's going to be a fight to start the All-Star Game," says the 28-year-old Rollins. "Hanley, that man is no joke; his time is definitely going to come."
Rollins, Reyes and Ramirez represent the next step in the evolution of the shortstop, from speedy, slick-fielding slap hitter ( Phil Rizzuto, Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith), to thickly built slugger ( Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada), to an even more versatile, physically explosive prototype. "They're unbelievably athletic, freakishly strong and fast," says Uggla of the NL East trio. "They have a lot of power, but they use their speed and gap shots to get on base." Through Monday they were on pace to average .339, with 232 hits, 46 doubles, 34 homers, 66 stolen bases and an astonishing 177 runs scored apiece.
Rollins is the first to admit that he's not as naturally gifted as Reyes and Ramirez. At 5'8" he gives up five inches to Reyes and seven to Ramirez, and although he's stolen an average of 34 bases over the past six seasons, Rollins concedes to them any footrace. " Reyes and Hanley," he says, "those dudes fly." Even so, Rollins believes that his experience puts him at the top of the group in terms of present value to his team. "It's probably me, Reyes and then Hanley," he says. His teammates, at the least, agree. "In comparison to those guys, he's an old, wily veteran," says pitcher Jamie Moyer, at 44 an old, wily veteran himself. "Jimmy plays the game a little more intelligently--not a knock on the other two--but on defense he may cheat up the middle a bit more, he may cheat into the hole. A ball gets hit up the middle, and you're like, Wow, how did he get to that?"
Still, when the question becomes which of the three will be considered the best when all is said and done, Rollins won't top many lists. Last December, Ken Griffey Jr. cited Ramirez as the player he'd pick to start a franchise. Most baseball people, though, covet Reyes even more. "I love Hanley Ramirez, I love Jimmy Rollins, but Jose Reyes is the guy I would pick of the three," says Washington Nationals G.M. Jim Bowden. "He has the highest upside."
The scene at 10:30 p.m. in the visiting clubhouse in Miami on April 24, after the Braves had beaten Ramirez and the Marlins 11--6, illustrates just how much respect the 23-year-old Reyes has earned as he plays in just his third full season in the big leagues. With the team bus idling outside, several Braves--including pitcher Tim Hudson, utilityman Pete Orr and rightfielder Jeff Francoeur--pause on their way back from the showers, towels around their waists, to watch the TV perched above the lockers as Reyes bats against Colorado reliever Ryan Speier with a man on third and two outs in the 12th inning, the score tied 1--1. "They're pitching to him!" shouts Francoeur. "Oh, man, this game's over. All he's going to do is chop one on the ground and beat it out."