Year of Puig, but Ramirez key to Dodgers

Yasiel Puig debuted in the majors one year ago Tuesday, and those of us who talk about the national pastime for a living made certain the anniversary was properly celebrated. In most retellings of the Dodgers' 2013 National League West title, Puig's arrival June 3 transformed a talented, underperforming team into the best version of itself.

But that's not entirely accurate. The Dodgers went 6-7 in Puig's first 13 starts. The more precise turning point came June 19 -- the day Hanley Ramirez returned as a full-time player.

Ramirez was absent from the starting lineup only twice over the Dodgers' next 42 games. His OPS during that span was 1.116. The Dodgers went 30-10 with Ramirez in the lineup during a stretch that effectively decided the division race.

So amid our commemorations for the Year of Puig, we must remember that June 2013 also was the month in which Ramirez reasserted himself as a superstar and elevated his teammates -- No. 66 included.

Yet, the Ramirez tributes are nonexistent. The same can be said for a contract extension that many thought would have arrived by now. With each passing day, there's a greater likelihood that Ramirez's baseball home in 2015 will be someplace other than Chavez Ravine.

The two most recent developments:

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly removed Ramirez from Monday's game after he made the final out of the seventh inning. The reason: Ramirez recently returned from a calf injury, and Mattingly wanted his best defensive shortstop, Erisbel Arruebarrena, on the field to protect a 5-2 lead. Ramirez was visibly upset by the decision, whacking an object with his bat and chucking a batting helmet as he made his way out of the dugout and into the clubhouse.

Tuesday, Ramirez told me there are no ongoing negotiations on a new contract between his representatives and the Dodgers. Unless that changes, he will become a free agent after this season.

Sure, those are only two vignettes from a week in early June. But both circumstances -- a frustrated Ramirez being replaced by a younger, better defender; the lack of a long-term contract extension -- are emblematic of a Dodgers season stuck in neutral at 31-29, seven games behind the Giants.

Both Ramirez and Mattingly had reasoned responses when I asked them about what happened in the dugout Monday night. Ramirez acknowledged that he wasn't happy to be removed from the game but respected Mattingly's right to make the call. "That's his decision," Ramirez said. "I'm really happy here." Ramirez, whose 2014 OPS is up to a very respectable .800, added that he and Mattingly have a "great" relationship.

Mattingly, meanwhile, said he has no problem with players who show emotion because they want to stay in the game. He said he would like to give Ramirez rest, to help him remain healthy over the full season. (Mattingly didn't say it, but Ramirez has played more than 100 games in a year only once since 2010.) As for calling on Arruebarrena -- who has six games of major-league experience -- Mattingly pointed to the 24-year-old's elite fielding ability.

Mattingly's view is simple: At least for now, while Juan Uribe is on the disabled list, Mattingly has one of the world's best defensive shortstops on his roster. It would be foolish to keep him on the bench. "You've got to use your players," Mattingly told me. "And he's here now."

In a vacuum, that makes perfect sense ... but, as you might have heard, laws of physics forbid baseball from being played in vacuums. Ramirez stewed the last time an employer tacitly questioned his defensive ability, when the Marlins signed Jose Reyes prior to the 2012 season. (Ramirez was dealt to L.A. midway through that year.) Now Ramirez is trying to rebound from a mediocre offensive start, all while proving to the Dodgers -- and prospective employers -- that he's an above-average, nine-inning shortstop.

If the Dodgers keep subbing Arruebarrena for Ramirez, they will feed the perception in baseball circles (and from advanced metrics) that Ramirez has regressed defensively. That could mean less money in free agency, an unwanted move to third base in the future ... or both.

It bears mention that Ramirez's Monday venting was at least the second overt case of frustration in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium within the past week. Mattingly and outfielder Andre Ethier got into an argument there over the weekend during a game against the Pirates.

There's something wrong with these 2014 Dodgers. For now, the folks who write the big checks are evaluating whether Ramirez is closer to the man who saved the 2013 Dodgers or disappointed the 2012 Marlins. Millions of dollars, and the salvation of a listless season, hinge on that elusive answer.

This article originally appeared on FOXsports.com

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