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Reasons to be wary of a Hanley Ramirez trade

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The Red Sox are going to shop Hanley Ramirez around, but is it really a slam dunk decision?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Winter Meetings, which typically represent the most eventful days of the MLB offseason, are just a week away. As with just about every team in the league, the Red Sox figure to have plenty of story lines when all of the clubs meet in Nashville. Chief among them will be their quest for an ace, which will almost surely be centered on David Price. In addition to that, expect to hear a lot of rumors about Boston potentially trading away Hanley Ramirez.

In fact, Nick Cafardo has reported that the team has already begun shopping last season’s big free agent acquisition. With Ramirez coming off a hugely disappointing 2015, it makes plenty of sense that Dave Dombrowski would explore this route. However, it may not be the slam dunk strategy that it seems to be upon first glance.

As of this moment, Ramirez is slated to be the team’s everyday first baseman in 2016. If they do deal him, that’s just another hole on this roster that will need to be filled. That in and of itself is not a reason to keep him around, of course, but they’ll need to figure out some alternatives before pulling the trigger. Travis Shaw is the best in-house option to man the position, coming off something of a breakout in the second half last year. However, his overall track record as a professional makes that a risky proposition. He’d surely have to be supplemented by either another full-time starter or at least another part-time player.

In free agency, there isn’t a ton of help out there. Chris Davis is the biggest name, and is certainly one worth pondering. However, he’s a big-time power bat that will be paid like one of the top hitters in the league. While he has the potential to be that kind of player, he also carries a massive strikeout rate that could just as easily make him a free agency bust. In the next tier, guys like Mike Napoli and Justin Morneau could represent intriguing cheaper options. However, between health, age and recent performance, they both have just as much, if not more, risk than Ramirez, albeit at a much cheaper rate.

The trade market is another route they could go, and there are some intriguing options there. The best fit could be Freddie Freeman, who may be the next victim of Atlanta’s all-out rebuild. He’s cost-controlled and has a fine track record, but he’d also strip the farm system of at least two of its remaining top-flight talents. Joey Votto could be a little cheaper in terms of prospects, but while he’s among the best hitters in the game, he’s owed $199 million over the next eight seasons, taking him through his age-39 season. Adam Lind could be a cheap get, both in terms of prospects and dollars, but he’s best fit in a platoon and Shaw doesn’t fit that plan. There’s not a lack of options here, but none are necessarily better than betting on a rebound from Ramirez.

Maddie Meyer-Getty Images

Maddie Meyer-Getty Images

Speaking of that rebound, there are reasons to believe that he can put his horrid 2015 behind him. While his piss-poor defense got most of the headlines (for good reason), Ramirez was really bad at the plate as well. He hit .249/.291/.426 in 430 plate appearances, culminating in just a 90 OPS+. However, the underlying issues there are ones that he can come back from.

For one thing, he was brought down by the second-lowest batting average of his career. However, he did so while striking out just 16.5 percent of the time, right in line with his career average. Instead, he was brought down by an abnormally low .257 BABIP. While some of that was bad luck, he also made a lot more weak contact that normal, especially in terms of ground balls. Ramirez also suffered a shoulder injury early in the year that affected him all year, though. We’ve seen how that kind of injury can affect hitters before, and there’s reason to believe he can get back to his normal self after an offseason of rest. Just look at what he did in April.

Beyond the average, Ramirez suffered from an extreme lack of walks, putting up a BB-rate of just 4.9 percent, 2.5 percentage points lower than his previous career-low. As discouraging as that is, his plate discipline numbers don’t really tell such an extreme story. He did swing at more pitches out of the zone and in general than his career norms, but those numbers looked an awful lot like they did in 2013. If you remember correctly, Ramirez put up a 189 OPS+ that year. His real issue was that he made contact on a lot of those pitches out of the zone. If he either swings through or fouls off some of those balls next year, one could easily imagine him getting close to a league-average walk-rate again in 2016.

With some health-related regression in BABIP and a little more luck in his walk-rate, all of a sudden we’re looking at a productive Ramirez at the plate again. That’s with no improvement in the power department, either, since he’s coming off a year in which he put up a quietly solid .177 Isolated Power. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that he can get back to that form, but the numbers suggest it’s at least possible. That possibility needs to be considered before selling him off for nothing.

Of course, to this point I’ve avoided the elephant in the room. Describing him as a liability on defense in 2015 would be generous, and they’ll have to deal with him learning a new position yet again in 2016. It would be simple to say that first base is a relatively easy position and he should smoothly transition there after years of playing shortstop, but we all said that same thing about him in left field last year. With that being said, he should theoretically be more comfortable in the infield. He’s also shown some commitment to cutting some of the weight he put on before last season, silencing some critics about his supposed lack of work ethic.

Finally, Dombrowski and company have to look at what it will cost the team to trade him, even beyond replacing him in the lineup and at first base. There have been reports that teams wouldn’t want him even if the Red Sox ate half of his remaining contract. This suggests Boston will have to go to extremes to persuade another club to take him on. That could mean eating even more of his contract that what was originally expected, which is something they could handle. However, it could also mean attaching him to an enticing young piece, something they should try to avoid at all costs.

None of this is to say Boston would be dumb to trade Ramirez under any circumstances. There’s a reason these rumors are out here, and there are plenty of scenarios in which dealing him is a good move. That doesn’t mean it needs to be done, though. Before they pull the trigger on this kind of deal, they need to outline a plan of attack in the aftermath. Is it worth the risk of not finding a suitable replacement at first base, especially given the possibility of Ramirez bouncing back at the plate? Is it worth adding the extra concessions it may take to get another team to deal for him? It may be, but it’s certainly not a slam dunk.