Seeking to go worst to first once again, the Red Sox are embracing a new plan to get them out of the AL East basement: Show the top free agents the big bucks.
No plan survives contact with the basement.
Barely two years removed from the Red Sox's repudiation of the big-money approach to building a roster, capped by their legendary trade of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, the Red Sox have committed a reported $190 million combined over four and five years, respectively, to Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval in an attempt to repair an offense that scored just 634 runs last season on the way to the team's second last-place finish in three years. With the two signings, the Sox set the stage for more moves — including the certainty of big trades — that should ripple through the industry as we head for the winter meetings.
Sandoval, who agreed to a five-year deal reportedly worth close to $100 million, was a candidate to be non-tendered by the Giants as recently as May. The switch-hitting third baseman recovered to hit .279/.324/.415 for the season and then put on a show in the playoffs, batting .333 to help the Giants win the World Series and push his career postseason line to .344/.389/.545. As pretty — and valuable — as those numbers are, they don't reflect any particular skill. Remember that Sandoval was benched by Bruce Bochy during his first postseason run, back in 2010, when he hit .176 in October. The Red Sox have signed an above-average third baseman, but, as with Crawford, they didn't sign a superstar hitter. They got a good player who is young (29), a free agent with some of his peak left.
Ramirez, who signed for four years and $88 million, has both more behind him and less in front of him than Sandoval does. Ramirez was one of the very best players in baseball from 2007-09, finishing second in the MVP voting in the final year of that stretch. Two seasons ago, he finished eighth in NL MVP balloting despite playing just 86 games, which is what happens when you bat .345/.402/.638 when you're on the field. Last year, Ramirez batted .283/.369/.448 in 128 games; on a rate basis, he was one of the 15 best hitters in the NL, and that .369 OBP is incredibly valuable as league OBP drifts down toward .300.
Ramirez, however, will be 31 next season, has missed an average of 45 games a year for the last four years, and has been a below-average defensive shortstop for most of his career. Ramirez expressed a willingness to move to third base, but that does the Red Sox little good with Sandoval now there. With 22-year-old Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, the Sox seem set to move Ramirez to leftfield; his bat should play there, but he'll have a challenge in both moving to left and in playing the Green Monster half the time.
The two moves, both of which happened within a few hours of each other on Monday, create a huge roster logjam for the Red Sox. September sensations Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo will be fighting for playing time in right and center with 2014 trade pickups Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig, as well as holdover 2013 hero Shane Victorino and forgotten glove man Jackie Bradley Jr. The Red Sox have also committed nearly $200 million without solving their pitching problems; they have a strong collection of young pitching talent, but no one on their roster who can be counted on for 32 starts and 200 innings.
The Ramirez and Sandoval signings indicate that the Sox believe they can go worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first, but to do that, they have to add at least two frontline starting pitchers. The Sox remain in on Jon Lester, who would be a boon to the rotation but would, at least before any trades, push the 2015 payroll north of $170 million. Adding another through trade would require not only adding the salary of a top starting pitcher, but likely also mean dealing a young prize such as Betts or Bogaerts. The Red Sox have made two big moves that guarantee that there are more big moves to come.
In the end, there is no one plan. The Red Sox, like every other team in MLB, have money and need wins. For all the talk about a "$100-million developmental machine" and calling other organizations an "evil empire", the Red Sox are no more pure than any other team when it comes to pursuing a title. Two years ago, dumping big contracts and signing mid-level free agents was their play, and it helped produce a title. Now, signing the top two free-agent hitters on the market and pushing the payroll to a franchise record is their play. If it produces a championship, no one will care about how it came about.