It’s bigger than Sweet Caroline, Dirty Water and Fenway Franks all put together. For Red Sox fans, there is no greater tradition than finding that elusive long-term first baseman. With Mike Napoli’s contract coming to an end at the season and David Ortiz’s career unfortunately coming close to its finish, there is at least one and possibly two spots in the lineup opening up very soon. This is becoming even more of a talking point amidst the many roster crunches that appear to be coming down the road. The crowded outfield has been discussed ad nauseam, and the two young catchers in the organization could provide a predicament in the next few years. After the recent signing of Yoan Moncada, the future infield has crowded up a bit, too. With all of this happening, Pablo Sandoval moving across the diamond from third in the next year or two has become a general consensus. That seems awfully presumptuous, especially with Hanley Ramirez on the roster.
Before I move on to why Ramirez would make more sense as a candidate to change positions, I think it’s important to mention how bold it is to be making these plans. The world where all of the young players like Xander Bogaerts and Moncada work out and cause this massive positional crunch is likely a fantasy one. So much can change between now and April 2016 that all of this could be moot. Maybe Allen Craig sticks around and performs well enough to grab the first base job next season. Maybe the Red Sox have another offensive acquisition up their sleeve. There’s a lot that can happen. With that being said, if things break the way we think (hope), Ramirez is more likely to move off his position than Sandoval.
Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
As much as it runs contrary to the weight narrative that is already surrounding him, Sandoval is at least an average defensive third baseman, and is most likely better than that. His quick reactions and strong arm make him a surprisingly adept third baseman. In fact, a good chunk of his value is tied to this ability. He’s a good offensive player, but that profile as a 115 OPS+ player looks a lot more attractive at third base rather than first base or designated hitter. Ramirez, on the other hand, has been a subpar defensive player for the entirety of his career. Yes, he’ll be moving from shortstop to left field in 2015, but there’s no way of knowing how he will adjust. There is a real and nonzero chance that he stays a below average defensive player. At the very least, it’s a better chance than Sandoval all of a sudden becoming bad with the glove.
Although Shane Victorino and Clay Buchholz get the bulk of the injury concern, Ramirez has a bit of a checkered health past as well. He has missed an average of 38 games over the last three seasons, while Sandoval has missed 27. There was only one DL stint for him in 2014, but he also missed chunks of game throughout the season with various nagging injuries. In fact, over his career he’s had just about every kind of nagging injury you can think of. While Sandoval hasn’t exactly been Cal Ripken, his injury history is a lot more encouraging than Ramirez’s. It’s possible the move off shortstop can save Ramirez’s health, but the range required in left field may not be the answer we hope it is.
This goes along nicely with the injury risk discussed above. One of the reasons Sandoval was such an intriguing target this winter was his relative youth compared to your typical free agent. As the Red Sox have made their weariness regarding signing aging players no secret, signing a third baseman who is entering his age-28 season makes a ton of sense. He still has a good four years left in his prime, at least. Ramirez, on the other hand, is a full three years older. There are still plenty of good years left in his bat, but it’s questionable how long his body will hold up. Moving to a less demanding position like first or DH could alleviate a problem that will hit him before than Sandoval.
As mentioned above, someone moving off their current position to first base or designated hitter is far from a certainty. There are so many other possible outcomes that Sandoval and Ramirez both staying at their current spots for the next few years may be the most probable. If someone does have to move, though, Ramirez seems to me to be the more likely candidate than Sandoval. It’s contrary to the presumed plan, but the factors suggest it’s the case. Not only does Sandoval have much more defensive certainty and value tied to that, he also has less injury risk and is likely to wear down later. If anyone is going to fill the voids possibly left by Napoli and/or Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez is the one to do so.