Healthy Hanley looking like his old self again

Healthy Hanley looking like his old self again

JUPITER, Fla. -- The sound off the bat is completely different from a year ago.

It's loud and it's forceful and it has a familiar ring to it. It's a sign that Hanley Ramirez seems to be back in a big way.

The Marlins' three-time All-Star once again is stinging the ball. On Saturday, he blistered his second home run of the Grapefruit League season, connecting on a two-run shot to left off Twins right-hander Carl Pavano in the fifth inning.

A ripped 227 pounds, Ramirez is off to a blazing Spring Training start, going 9-for-19 (.474) in his first eight games. If you count his opposite-field drive against the University of Miami on March 6 at Marlins Park, the newly converted third baseman has three blasts in the exhibition season.

"It's a big year for him," hitting coach Eduardo Perez said. "I think he's going to be again one of the top players in the league, and maybe the top player in the league. Health is huge. Environment is great, and he's being put into a situation to succeed. I've got to give him a lot of credit. He's learning a new position. He's embracing it. He's not letting that affect at all his offense, and we're seeing it now. Hopefully he can carry it into the season."

After an injury-plagued 2011, Ramirez is striving to return to the form that made him one of the elite players in the National League.

"That's what I'm aiming for, that's what we're doing in Spring Training, to get ready for the season," the 28-year-old slugger said.

What Ramirez didn't talk about much a year ago is the pain he experienced on a daily basis. He doesn't want to make any excuses for his worst pro season, in which he finished with a .243 batting average, 10 home runs and 45 RBIs in 92 games.

In assessing his down year, much was made over the fact he missed the final two months due to a left shoulder injury, which required surgery in September.

Before the shoulder dislodged against the Mets at Citi Field in early August, Ramirez previously was dealing with some back issues.

On June 11, 2011, he went on the disabled list with a left lower back strain. But the discomfort plagued him well before that.

"It's about core," Perez said. "Your back, it affects your legs, and you're not comfortable. He's healthy now. At the beginning, everybody was talking about the shoulder, and it's not. He's strong there. But now, he's strong with his back. Last year, at the end, before he got hurt in New York, he was starting to feel more comfortable. He was utilizing his core better. I think that helped a lot."

Ramirez admits his back wasn't right all last year.

How much did it bother him?

"A lot," he said. "For the whole year."

From Day 1 of Spring Training, Ramirez has been the most positive story of Marlins camp.

During a spring when plenty of the local and national conversation has been on either outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen or the additions of high-profile free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, Ramirez has quietly gone about his business.

The health of the club has been discussed and analyzed extensively. Will Josh Johnson's shoulder hold up? And now, two-thirds of the outfield -- Logan Morrison and Giancarlo Stanton -- are resting sore knees.

The constant, thus far, in camp has been Ramirez torching the baseball and working diligently in the field.

The transition to third base to make room for Reyes at shortstop is going smoothly. And, yes, Ramirez is happy at the hot corner.

"I don't know what to say, I just feel good there," Ramirez said. "I feel 100 percent comfortable. I like it a lot. I'm giving 100 percent of my work right now."

The Marlins made a big splash on the free-agent market, signing Reyes, Buehrle and Bell to multiyear contracts. The way Ramirez has settled in at third makes Perez feel like the club also added a fourth major star.

"We got three key free agents everybody talks about," Perez said. "My other free agent is Hanley. We got a top-notch free-agent third baseman. He's MVP material."

Considering all the criticism Ramirez has received, and speculation that he was disgruntled about playing a new position, it would be easy for him to have a chip on his shoulder and want to prove doubters wrong.

But Ramirez's focus is being the player that he was during his All-Star years.

"I'm not trying to show anybody nothing," he said. "Everybody knows me. I've been in the league for a little bit. Last year was just one more year in the big leagues. Everybody knows that I wasn't 100 percent."

So far, Ramirez is looking like his old self.

The power he is showing now wasn't there in Spring Training a year ago. He didn't hit a home run in 63 Grapefruit League at-bats in 2011. In fact, he didn't go deep in the 2010 spring season.

"He had a rough year last year, and he dealt with injuries," said Ricky Nolasco, a teammate of Ramirez since 2006. "Everybody knows how good he is. He showed he's one of the best players in the league for five years. Every player is going to have a down year. It wasn't even a down year, it was just because he was hurt. That's why he struggled. Nobody is worried about it; he will be fine. Obviously, encouraging signs so far."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.