The Boston Red Sox kicked their offseason into gear on Monday, signing both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to multi-year deals. Ramirez will earn $88 million over the next four years, according to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, and will also have a vesting option worth $22 million for the fifth season. Sandoval, meanwhile, will earn "close to $100 million" over the next five years, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman. Both deals are reportedly done, pending physicals, reports Heyman. Either deal on its own is both compelling and risky, but the two together represent a fascinating gambit for a Red Sox team that had just one hole in its lineup coming into this offseason and a significant need for starting pitching.
Of the two, Sandoval's signing is the more straightforward. The former Giant will take over at third base — that one lineup hole — where he remains an excellent defender despite his decline at the plate. But Ramirez, a one-time top Red Sox prospect, likely will not stay at shortstop, where he spent the last three seasons with the Dodgers. From Boston's point of view, Sandoval is a third baseman, but Ramirez is just a bat, and his ultimate home on the diamond in a Red Sox uniform could very well depend on other, subsequent moves.
As things stand, every other position in the lineup and on the field is filled for Boston. The Red Sox have Xander Bogaerts, one of the top prospects in the game prior to his just-completed rookie season, at shortstop; Dustin Pedroia, who is signed through 2021, at second base; Mike Napoli at first base; David Ortiz, with inexpensive club options through 2017, at designated hitter; and an outfield of Yoenis Cespedes in left, Cuban import Rusney Castillo (signed through 2020) in center, and Allen Craig (signed through 2018) and Shane Victorino in right.
So where does Ramirez fit? It depends on which of those other players they are willing and able to trade for the starting pitching they so desperately need. The first assumption is that the Sox, who traded ace Jon Lester for Cespedes in July, will turn around and flip Cespedes for another top pitcher and put Ramirez in leftfield. Cespedes has just one year left on his contract at an affordable $10.5 million and cannot be extended a qualifying offer, meaning the Sox wouldn't miss the chance to land an extra 2016 draft pick by trading him ahead of his free agency. Of course, that lack of potential draft-pick compensation reduces his value to another team as well.
Napoli is also in the final year of his contract. A move to first base could be easier for Ramirez, who has never played the outfield in his 12-year professional career. However, Napoli is owed $16 million for 2015 and, at 33, is four years older than Cespedes, which among other things means that a qualifying offer could kill his market value a year from now.
On the other side of the scale, the Red Sox could shop Bogaerts, hoping to land a true ace for five team-controlled years of one of the game's top young talents. Coincidentally, that is what they did with Ramirez nine years ago, sending him to the Marlins in a six-player deal that brought back Josh Beckett, the ace of Boston's 2007 world championship team. Trading Bogaerts would allow Ramirez to remain at his customary position at shortstop, at least until his own poor defense and the Red Sox's other shortstop prospect — Deven Marrero, a 24-year-old with a low ceiling who cracked Triple A in the second half of last season — force him off the position.
Meanwhile, in Mookie Betts and Garin Cecchini, Boston has two other well-regarded prospects who impressed in their major league debuts in 2015 but would have nowhere to play on a team that includes both Ramirez and Sandoval. Betts is a 22-year-old centerfielder/second baseman who can hit, run and field. Cecchini, a third baseman who has some experience in left and will turn 24 in April, was listed as the team's third-best prospect coming into the 2014 season by Baseball Prospectus (with Betts ranked eighth). Either of them could be on the move, possibly in a package with one of the other three players mentioned above. Ultimately, we won't know what to make of the dual Ramirez and Sandoval signings until the other shoes drop and the Red Sox's offseason puzzle is (or, potentially, isn't) completed.
As for the wisdom of giving each of those players a five-year deal worth close to $100 million, that's debatable in and of itself. As Jay Jaffe calculated last week, Sandoval is a bad bet to be worth what the Red Sox are rumored to be paying him over the next five years. Yes, he's just 28 and a fine defender at his position, but his production at the plate has declined in each of the last three seasons at ages when he should be continuing to improve (see table), and his ability to defy his body type is unlikely to last into his early thirties.
Ramirez, despite his poor defense at shortstop and resulting lack of a position, is a better bet largely because he's a better bat. Over the last two seasons combined, Ramirez has hit .308/.382/.525, good for a 156 OPS+ that edges out even Sandoval's career-best showing in 2011. However, Ramirez will turn 31 in December; he's nearly three years older than Sandoval and well into his thirties already. He is also a player who has had considerable difficulty staying healthy in recent years, averaging just 116 games per season since 2011 due to a wide variety of ailments from sciatica to torn thumb ligaments, numerous injuries stemming from being hit by pitches, various muscle strains (hamstring, calf, oblique), and issues with both shoulders (surgery on the left in September 2011, inflammation in the right this past June).
A move off of shortstop, like the one the Red Sox apparently have planned, could reduce the wear and tear on Ramirez, allowing him to stay healthier and slowing his resulting decline. Per Jay's calculations, even factoring in the move to the left of the defensive spectrum, which would decrease Ramirez's baseline value, Ramirez's overall value would actually increase over the course of his contract if taking him off shortstop had the intended effects in terms of health.
As for who could be following Ramirez and Sandoval to Boston, there aren't a lot of teams with an excess of starting pitching, but Boston could find several potential trade partners in the National League East, where the Phillies are rumored to be holding a fire sale, the Nationals have said they will listen on ace Jordan Zimmermann, and the Mets have a legitimate starting pitching glut with Matt Harvey due to return to a rotation that gained Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom in 2014.
Zimmermann and Cole Hamels are the most compelling pitchers believed to be available from those three teams. The former has just one year of team control left but is a legitimate ace who could be extended or net a draft pick in 2016. Hamels, who turns 31 next month, is owed $96 million over the next four years, which is a much more team-friendly deal than what it would take to sign Lester, another soon-to-be-31-year-old lefty (and one whom the Giants, having just lost Sandoval, are now said to be pursuing).
The Mets, meanwhile, could offer up prospect Rafael Montero, who did not impress in his first major league look this year; Bartolo Colon, entering his age-42 season and the final year of his contract; or middling options such as Jonathon Niese or Dillon Gee, both of whom have two team-controlled seasons remaining. Another compelling trade partner could be the Seattle Mariners, who remain desperate for offense, would love a righthanded slugger like Cespedes (who has proven his ability to hit for power in a pitchers' park), and have numerous young arms to offer. Exactly which of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, or Erasmo Ramirez could be parted with remains to be seen.
As it stands, the Red Sox's projected 2015 rotation starts with Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz, then is followed by some combination of Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo and possibly top pitching prospect Henry Owens later in the season. It won't take much for Boston to improve on that group, but that work remains to be done, as does some reinforcing of the bullpen. As a result, despite news of the Ramirez and Sandoval additions, we still don't know just what the 2015 Red Sox will look like. The only thing that seems sure is that Boston is far from finished this offseason.