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Hanley Ramirez giving Marlins yet another reason for optimism

JUPITER, Fla. -- Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez beat out a chopper to the right side of the infield in a game this week, a play that seemed insignificant except for Miami scoring four runs thereafter and for what manager Ozzie Guillen said to Ramirez. "Those runs," he told him, "are because of you."

A puzzled Ramirez asked why. Guillen told him they were made possible because he hustled to first base to start a rally.

Explained Guillen, "If I have to stroke a player, I will. If I have to get all over a player, I will. I'm not afraid to get on Hanley if I have to, but he also has to understand that he doesn't have to hit the ball out of the ballpark to help us. Maybe those are the kind of things he hasn't heard enough of.

"He's been great. He hit one ball where he stood there and watched it. I thought, you better not be standing on first base when you should be on second, easy. It went out. I mean, way out. So that's okay."

Of all the players looking for a bounceback year -- Buster Posey of the Giants, Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, Jason Heyward of the Braves, etc. -- no player can transform the National League pennant race like Ramirez. A former batting champion with a .520 slugging percentage entering last year, Ramirez played in only 92 games, batted .243, slugged .379 and underwent surgery on his left shoulder. When the Marlins signed free agent Jose Reyes, Ramirez was forced to switch from shortstop to third base. He reported to camp in better shape than he was at this time last year and, according to hitting coach Eduardo Perez, has looked dominant once again.

"It wasn't just the shoulder, it was his back, too," Perez said. "He couldn't generate any power. Now we've got him back to where he was before. The big thing is getting him started earlier. He has a lot of moving parts in his swing, and when you do that you need to get started a little earlier. They key is making sure he gets his [stride] foot down early enough. And he's looked great. I mean, great. I'm talking about a guy who could put up an MVP-type season. That's how good he looks."

Guillen said Ramirez has embraced third base despite initial reports that he resisted the move. "You never heard anything from him like that," Guillen said. "People may have written stuff, but he never said it. I told him, 'You have two choices: you can play third base and like it, or you can play third base and be miserable.'"

The Marlins are having a best-case scenario spring. Ace Josh Johnson is healthy, Ramirez looks like his old self and their first look at their new ballpark this week was nothing sort of inspirational. The place could be an important ingredient in how they play.

Think about it: The Marlins are moving from one of the two or three worst venues in baseball to what could become one of the two or three best. The early reports are that the Marlins successfully created a clean break from the red-brick, green-seated retro ballpark trend that had run its course. They managed to build a retractable roof ballpark that seems cozy from the seating bowl. The players said the park played small when the roof was open, but big, especially gap-to-gap, when the roof was closed. It should create plenty of triples for Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio.

Some minor tweaks will no doubt be needed. Some players, for instance, think the lime green outfield wall may need to be darker to create a better hitting background. But the players raved about the creature comforts and the energy in the ballpark -- no small factor when you're used to playing in a half-empty football stadium.

Look at it this way: The Marlins had absolutely no homefield advantage in their previous home. Over the past three seasons, all while finishing last in attendance, the Marlins had a better record on the road (124-122) than at home (115-125).

The average major league team plays about 52 percentage points better at home than on the road. With just an average homefield advantage, based on how they played last year, the Marlins should be 11 wins better this year, which puts them at 83 wins. But if the ballpark is filled with newfound excitement -- and why not, with a strong season-ticket base and the quirkiness of an aquarium behind home plate and a funky Peter Max-like home run machine in the outfield -- the homefield effect should be better than average. And if you add a healthy Johnson (he made only nine starts last year) and free agent additions Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to the pitching staff, and with three MVP candidates in the lineup -- a healthy Ramirez, Reyes and Giancarlo Stanton -- you begin to understand why the Marlins are a legit playoff contender.

Keep an eye on Cardinals second baseman Tyler Greene, who at age 28 finally may become another breakout player from the 2005 Draft, the greatest draft ever (Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, Troy Tulowitzki, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, etc.). Greene has played 616 minor league games and never hit much in sporadic play in the majors (.218 in 150 games). But he's a terrific athlete with impressive tools -- plus power, speed and throwing arm -- who Cardinals sources say looks like a different player this spring. For one, having moved from shortstop, he has a chance to lock down the second base job. He is the preferred candidate in competition with Skip Schumaker and Daniel Descalso.

"The other day he turned a double play I guarantee only about five other guys in the game could turn," GM John Mozeliak said. "He did it because of arm strength."

Said one Cardinal, "He has so much ability it's scary. He has the potential to hit 20 homers and steal 40 bases. You put that at second base? Wow."

Moreover, Cardinals sources say Greene is more relaxed under manager Mike Matheny than he was under Tony La Russa. Said another team source, "If he missed a groundball, right away he would look around and think what Tony was thinking about him. You can see he's a lot more comfortable this spring."

Questions remain about Greene. He strikes out too much and needs to show more consistency. But he has posted an .851 OPS across four seasons in Triple A. With nothing left to prove there and no minor league options left, he finally may be ready for the next level.

How balanced is the National League field? When the analytics department of one NL club ran its projected numbers, it found only one team that will win 90 games: Philadelphia.

In 16 full seasons under the three-division format, only once, in 2006, did only one NL team win at least 90 games. (The Mets, with 97.) Back then the imbalance between leagues was so great that NL teams played .390 baseball against AL teams that year (104-163), depressing the overall win total. The league has averaged 3.6 90-win teams per year since 1996.

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