The Red Sox came out of nowhere Sunday night to land Hanley Ramirez on a five-year, $90 million contract. While there's still paperwork to be done before we can call it "final", it's a deal that might just go down as the steal of the offseason.
It's no surprise that Ramirez' value is not what one might have expected years ago. In the years immediately following the trade that sent Ramirez to the Marlins in exchange for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, he emerged as one of the most valuable players in the game. His glove was certainly lacking at shortstop, but he produced more than enough with his bat to make up for any deficiencies in the field.
The last five years, however, have not gone quite so smoothly. After seeing his numbers dip in 2010, Ramirez struggled mightily through an injury-marred 2011 campaign, endured a mediocre year in 2012, and was limited to 86 games, however fantastic, thanks to more injuries early in 2013.
2014, however, saw Ramirez put together a fairly complete performance for the first time in a long while, and it's that return to form that makes the five-year deal he signed with the Red Sox look like a bargain.
Let's forget about the perception of the market for the moment. Many expected Hanley to be the real prize on the left side of the infield this offseason, but that's not really all that important. Let's just look at the player the Red Sox landed, and how much they're giving him.
There's no doubt that Ramirez is a risky signing. He's on the wrong side of 30, has dealt with the aformentioned injuries, and saw his performance suffer for it in 2011 and 2012. Ramirez is more likely than, say, Pablo Sandoval to completely fall to pieces over the coming years, and while $90 million isn't as much as it used to be in baseball, it would still be a big hit to the team's payroll if Ramirez spent most of those five years injured or underperforming.
With that risk, however, comes the possibility for great rewards. At .283/.369/.448, Ramirez' batting line from 2014 is reasonably impressive without adjustment. But with adjustment--for the park he's playing in and the competition he's facing--we have a 135 wRC+. That's not simply good. It would be tied with David Ortiz for the best on the 2014 Red Sox. Hanley Ramirez does not provide Pablo Sandoval's solid filler bat. He's a legitimate offensive force. Even if his numbers don't improve at all upon making the jump to Fenway (an unlikely event), the Red Sox would be happy to slot his bat into the middle of the order day after day.
And while yes, there is the possibility we'll see that drop back down towards his 2011 and 2012 figures in days to come, there's a flip side to that coin. That comes in the years where Ramirez was producing a wOBA hovering around .400, and in those 336 plate appearances in 2013 which saw Ramirez hit a stunning .345/.402/.638. 2014 is not the ceiling for Ramirez so much as the happy middle-ground.
The two caveats are fairly obvious: age and position. Ramirez might well start to decline as his contract comes to a close, yes, but that's just the nature of free agent contracts these days. The only reason Pablo Sandoval would have come in at five years at his young age is because of the weight concerns. Good, young players do not sign away their best years without also getting paid for some of their later seasons in the process.
Position shouldn't be a problem. If the Red Sox simply close the book on the infield today, Hanley Ramirez could make the easy (and necessary) shift to third. Ramirez - Bogaerts - Pedroia - Napoli accross the diamond sounds pretty fantastic to me. But it doesn't sound like Boston's acquisition of Ramirez has spelled the end to their pursuit of Sandoval. Add him to the mix, and suddenly they're shifting Ramirez into an already overfull outfield, forcing more roster movement and more dramatic positional changes. It's not impossible, but it certainly makes the situation a whole lot more messy.
Really, though, those caveats are only so much in the face of $90 million and five years. It sounds like a lot, it does. But this is three years after Prince Fielder signed for nine years and $217 million. Josh Hamilton got $133 million for his five years. And just one week ago, Giancarlo Stanton signed for a number so large it doesn't even bear repeating here. If five years and $90 million is a big contract -- and I do mean if -- then it's the smallest big contract you're going to find these days.
There are no guarantees in baseball, and Hanley Ramirez might be even less of a guarantee than quite a few other free agents. But when a player of Ramirez' caliber can be had at such a reasonable price, there's just not enough risk involved to offset the substantial upside.