After nine years away, Hanley Ramirez is back in the Red Sox organization, agreeing to a five-year, $90 million deal with Boston in the late hours of Sunday night. And yet, even with Ramirez aboard, it seems as though the Red Sox are still pursuing third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Ken Rosenthal said that would be the case before Ramirez agreed, and both Jon Heyman and Nick Cafardo have chimed in in support.
The first question that comes to mind is "why?" But close on its heels is "how?"
The simple answer to the first question is: because they are good players. Pablo Sandoval is solid, if not as spectacular as his reputation would suggest. Hanley Ramirez could be one of the best players in the league in any given season, if there's more risk there for lost years than with Sandoval. In both cases, the upside outweighs the downside, with the only question being the price. In a vacuum, the Red Sox are a better team with both Hanley and Sandoval than without.
But this isn't in a vacuum. The Red Sox have a lot of pieces, and if one of Hanley or Sandoval could fit in easily at third base, they're certainly not going to be platooning there!
So how do we fit both into the team? There are so many permutations of the many players involved in the calculation -- Ramirez, Sandoval, Bogaerts, Cespedes, Victorino, Castillo, Napoli, Craig, Holt, Nava, Middlebrooks, and probably a half-dozen others that I've forgotten -- that it's just not feasible to go through each possibility. So let's lock down some things that should be true in every scenario.
1. Hanley Ramirez is not a shortstop, Xander Bogaerts is not involved
Let's get this out of the way first, because it's probably the one question that popped up the most as soon as Hanley signed: "what does this mean for Xander Bogaerts?"
While anything could still happen, the answer really should be "nothing." Hanley Ramirez has played shortstop for most of his career, but that doesn't mean he belongs there. He's been more open to playing elsewhere than he was in his time in Miami, and the Red Sox should take the opportunity to move him off of shortstop right away. Xander Bogaerts is not an ideal shortstop either, but his youth makes him the obvious choice, and even if 2014 was disappointing, Boston cannot be willing to give up on the former top-prospect by any means.
2. Pablo Sandoval has to play third for a long time.
Pablo Sandoval is a good player, but a surprising amount of his value is wrapped up in his ability to play third given his size. His bat is simply not good enough to justify anywhere near his likely price if he's playing first base or, even worse, DH. If Pablo Sandoval is not playing third base, he's not really earning his spot on the team.
This becomes particularly important when you throw Hanley Ramirez into the mix. Maybe the Red Sox intend for him to play left field for a long while, but both Mike Napoli and David Ortiz (sad though it is to say it) are likely going to be gone well before Ramirez' deal is done, and it seems like that would provide Ramirez and his more formidable bat a natural landing spot as his defense dips further. It's hard to imagine the Red Sox signing Sandoval if they anticipate him getting in the way of that transition.
Photo credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
In the end, then, it comes down to player evaluation (credit to Matt Kory for that), and whether the Red Sox believe that Sandoval can play at third for four or five years. They may prove wrong, but we're just trying to figure out the plan here, not necessarily predict its success.
3. Yoenis Cespedes is likely to be traded, Mike Napoli is not
The Red Sox will need to find a place for Hanley if Sandoval is at third, and that place is either in left, or at first. That means making a trade of an outfielder or Mike Napoli, and it seems unlikely that either Mookie Betts or Rusney Castillo is going anywhere anytime soon.
Between Cespedes and Napoli, the choice seems easy. They're players with similar profiles and contracts, with the main difference being that Mike Napoli, over the last two years, has become a fan favorite and a seemingly core part of the clubhouse. He won't be here forever, no, but it's hard to imagine the Red Sox trading him away when Cespedes could be dealt just as easily.
4. Expendable players are expendable!
Let's not mince words here: the Red Sox are not going to base their major free agent signings around Will Middlebrooks or Daniel Nava. There are quite a few players on that list that it would hurt to see go. It's pretty easy to find spots for some of them--there's always need for a fourth outfielder, for instance, whether they're being paid $13 million or the league minimum--but not for all of them. And whether it means giving up on Jackie Bradley Jr. or watching one of the players we traded John Lackey for returning to form with some other team, there's certainly going to be the possibility that we give away the wrong players in the process.
But that's the situation the Red Sox face, and letting free agent strategy get bogged down because we don't want to lose value in the margins just doesn't make any sense.
5. The Red Sox still need pitching!
They'll also still have plenty of money available for it. More on that later. Or now.
There are really convoluted ways to make this all work out. To give you an idea:
Red Sox trade Bogaerts and Cespedes for top-flight pitching, sign another mid-tier starting pitcher, move Mookie Betts to shortstop, play Hanley Ramirez in left, Sandoval at third, Rusney and Victorino in center and right respectively. Bradley Jr., Holt, and Craig play backup roles, while Will Middlebrooks hits the minors and Daniel Nava finds a new home.
All that, though, reeks of the thinking that led the Red Sox to shift Daniel Bard into a starting role while trading for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. It's a complicated answer to a relatively simple problem.
More likely by far: the Red Sox trade Yoenis Cespedes to free up some money, play Hanley Ramirez in left for now, and sign a couple of pitchers--one of them a top-flight arm--with the money leftover after two fairly reasonable contracts to Ramirez and Sandoval and the funds freed up by trading Cespedes. Shane Victorino plays a fourth outfielder role, keeping his workload down, while one of Brock Holt or Jackie Bradley Jr. and one of Daniel Nava and Allen Craig are traded.
Right now, the Red Sox have a pretty strong foundation to build on. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts represent the youth contingency, with Rusney Castillo, Dustin Pedroia, and Hanley Ramirez all locked into long-term deals. It seems to me, at least, that any plan for adding Sandoval into the mix should start with that foundation, and involve as little change as possible. The money is still there to sign a top-tier pitcher, even assuming the Red Sox are sticking to their usual payroll constraints, and another could come in if the Red Sox found a way to unload some money in the process of unloading some of their excess roster pieces.
The Red Sox were one crowded team before Hanley Ramirez, and they may just be adding more bodies to the already complicated mix. It's such a confusing and overwhelming situation that it almost obscures the fact that losing value because you have more interesting or good players than the roster can fit is a pretty nice problem to have.
When you start breaking the situation down into smaller pieces, though, it becomes a lot easier to manage. There are key members of the roster who are locked in, important role players who would be difficult to replace in the short term, and then a whole bunch of relatively interchangeable names who are the ones most likely to be moved around. This is not shifting Daniel Bard to the rotation and trading for relievers to replace him--or at least it shouldn't be. The Red Sox could put together a crazy, convoluted offseason and come away with a dramatically different team, or they could make the simple moves and come away with a dramatically improved team. The latter seems the obvious choice.