How will Boston's big deals for Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez affect the free-agent market and everyone else's offseason plans?
Thanksgiving is still two days away, but in the wake of the Red Sox's simultaneous signing of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, four of this winter's top free-agent hitters have already come off the board. Ramirez and Sandoval join Victor Martinez, who re-signed with the Tigers two weeks ago, and Russell Martin, who came to terms with the Blue Jays last week. Four of the top five position players from Ben Reiter's ranking of the top 50 free agents are gone; further down that list, Michael Cuddyer (Mets), Adam LaRoche (White Sox), and Billy Butler (Athletics) have also signed.
That's a fairly aggressive market for hitters, and one that seems likely to benefit those bats who remain unsigned. In particular, those who play on the left side of the infield stand to gain a lot, now that Ramirez, a shortstop who some were considering as a third baseman, and Sandoval, a proper third baseman, are off the board.
The primary beneficiary there is likely to be Chase Headley. The switch-hitting third baseman was a hot target of trade rumors after what looked like a breakout season in 2012, but rather than trading him at the peak of his value, the Padres attempted to extend him, only to trade him to the Yankees back in July after a season and a half of decline from that now seemingly fluky year. That deal, however, allowed Headley to get out of Petco Park and into hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, where he juiced his market value by batting .262/.371/.398 and playing spectacular defense for New York.
Headley will be 31 in May and was merely a league-average bat on the 2014 season as a whole, but he is easily the best free-agent option left at the hot corner — after him, it's Alberto Callaspo, Mark Reynolds, and Kelly Johnson. The Yankees are looking to re-sign him, as they know not to count on a full season at third base from Alex Rodriguez, but they'll have competition. Namely, the Giants are in need of a replacement for Sandoval, and the Blue Jays are interested in a third baseman to allow Brett Lawrie to stay at second base. Headley is suddenly in high demand.
There are more viable free agent options at shortstop, but none are more compelling than Headley is at third. Asdrubal Cabrera leads the shortstop pack by reputation and youth (he just turned 29), but his knack for highlight-reel plays masks poor range afield, and his bat has barely been above average for a shortstop over the last two years. After Cabrera are Jed Lowrie and Stephen Drew.
With Derek Jeter having retired, the Yankees will be players on the shortstop market as well and have expressed interest in re-signing Drew, whom they acquired from Boston at last season's trading deadline. The Dodgers, who just lost Ramirez (though they had no intention of re-signing him), and the A's, who last employed Lowrie and traded top shortstop prospect Addison Russell in July, are two other teams in the market for a shortstop this winter.
If those teams (or any others looking to upgrade from an incumbent starter) want to make a bigger splash at shortstop, they could pursue a blockbuster trade for the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, or a smaller deal for veteran Jimmy Rollins, who is entering the final year of his contract and owed $11 million for the coming season. In the case of Tulowitzki, there are some significant obstacles: the $100 million left on his contract over the next five seasons, his injury history, and the need to make such a trade worth the Rockies' while. For Rollins, who turns 36 on Thanksgiving, his right to veto any trade as a 10-and-5 player who has spent his entire career with the Phillies could be a wrench in the works of a potential deal.
Ironically, the Red Sox didn't sign Ramirez as a shortstop; they signed him as a bat, one they will move to the outfield. That's a reminder that Ramirez was not only the best shortstop on the market, but also one of the best hitters at any position. That designation now falls to Nelson Cruz. Despite having led the majors in home runs this past season, Cruz is at the extreme other end of the defensive spectrum as a poor leftfielder who may not be viable for any team without an opening at designated hitter. Melky Cabrera, Michael Morse, and perhaps Cuban defector Yasmany Tomas are the top bats available after that, but all of them also fall on the far left side of the defensive spectrum, and each of them comes with his share of concerns and question marks.
Meanwhile, the only free-agent starting pitcher to qualify for the ERA title last year who has signed with a team for 2015 has been A.J. Burnett, who will turn 38 in January and is headed to the Pirates on a one-year deal. The Sandoval and Ramirez deals may help kickstart the pitching market, however, as the Red Sox have been one of the teams most often linked to one of the top pitchers on the market, former Boston ace Jon Lester. Now that the Red Sox know how much and for how long they will be paying Sandoval and Ramirez, they can get down to brass tacks with Lester, who they are said to still be pursuing.
When Lester signs — be it with Boston, San Francisco (which is said to be interested now that the Giants know they won't be paying Sandoval), or elsewhere — it could be the first domino that tips Max Scherzer, James Shields and trade targets such as Cole Hamels, whom the Red Sox are also in on at the moment, into action. With Thanksgiving coming up, there may be brief period of quiet at the end of this week, but look for a lot of action next week, spilling into the Winter Meetings in San Diego the week of Dec. 8.