Hanley Ramirez, left fielder, is an experiment that is all but over. He'll still make starts there during 2015 as this season without meaning in the standings comes to a close, but he won't be the Red Sox left fielder in 2016. Ramirez himself has said as much, after he received instruction at the position from Brian Butterfield and teammate David Ortiz before Tuesday's game.
This move accomplishes a few things immediately. Outside of likely making fans more tolerant of Ramirez going forward, knowing his days of haunting Boston's outfield can now be counted down to their conclusion, it also shows that new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is already making a difference. Interim manager Torey Lovullo said this wasn't a change being considered before Dombrowski came to the Sox.
Now, let's not pretend like former general manager Ben Cherington was never going to move Hanley out of left -- chances are good he just wasn't going to do it in 2015, since he's the man responsible for bringing Ramirez on board, and one of the conditions of that was a dislike for being bounced around the field.
Dombrowski, though, has no such attachment to Ramirez, and while he can't just start (and shouldn't) treat him like garbage or anything, he can pull Hanley aside and politely suggest that maybe a position where he didn't embarrass himself every other day would be in everyone's best interests. We still don't know if Ramirez is going to hit again -- though it's likely he will given the ups and downs of his career -- and we don't know if he'll also be a terrible defensive first baseman, but at least it's not left field.
The former shortstop was not any good at that position, either, and seemed a poor fit for third base as well in his brief times there, but maybe first base will be the answer for him. It's a busy position, for sure, but he won't have to track fly balls or learn to deal with the Green Monster looming behind him while he's at first base, so if he can scoop throws and make plays on the balls hit to him, it'll be a massive improvement. These are huge ifs, but it's not like the Sox had another obvious answer at first base around either in-house or on the free agent market, so they might as well give the guy under contract who has shown in the past he has the bat for the position a shot.
Hanley can still hit the ball very far. (Photo credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
The more significant change is likely what this means for Boston's outfield. It is very likely already set for 2016, with some alignment of Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, and Jackie Bradley Jr. out there. Betts has played above-average defense in center field while also showing an above-average bat with potential for more. Rusney Castillo has just 58 games in the majors, but he's hitting .311/.351/.468 in that time and is another quality defensive player who can handle Fenway's difficult right field. Maybe most importantly, he's begun to make noticeable adjustments to his swing and setup that have allowed him to thrive after some initial scuffles in 2015. These are the two locks for the 2016 outfield, if such a thing exists in this game.
Bradley didn't hit even a little until a couple of weeks ago, but like Castillo, some noticeable improvements in his approach have begun to show up. Over his last 17 games, Bradley is batting .400/.468/.855 with four homers and 14 extra-base hits overall. The ball is finally jumping off of his bat, as Bradley isn't swinging like a lost prospect overmatched by major-league competition. He's putting good swings on the ball and swinging at the right pitches for the most part, and it's brought him his first real stretch of production in the majors of the last three years.
He's obviously not going to hit like this going forward -- he didn't even hit like this during his greatest stretches in the minors, against inferior competition. This three-week stretch does give hope that Bradley has finally figured some things out, though, that he isn't going to be so hopeless and incapable when pitchers get ahead of him in the count or go outside with breaking stuff or inside with a fastball. If Bradley can hit even .260/.320/.400 over a full season, he'll be a valuable asset thanks to his glove. He doesn't need to be a great hitter for his position: he just needs to avoid being bad.
If Bradley manages to hit himself into a starting job for 2016, he should probably be the center fielder, with Betts moving over to left. A Betts-Bradley-Castillo outfield alignment is one in which basically any fly ball or line drive that can be caught will be caught, and if Castillo and Betts continue on their current trajectory and Bradley manages to hit enough, they'll also provide plenty of offense.
Bradley continuing to hit is no sure thing, of course: he's still striking out 26 percent of the time, and no matter how incredible these three weeks have been, they're still just three weeks. If Bradley can't manage to convince his new boss that he's anything more than a fourth outfielder, well, at least the Red Sox can go shopping for another outfielder either through trades or free agency. Old friend of both the Sox and Dombrowski, Yoenis Cespedes, is a free agent who cannot be given a qualifying offer this offseason. Justin Upton will be just 28 years old and a free agent, and the Red Sox will likely have a protected first-round pick, so they'd only lose their second-round selection by going after him. Jason Heyward is, of course, the dream, as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game as well as a well above-average bat in any outfield slot.
So, while we don't know for sure who all three starting outfielders will be in 2016, there is at least a path open for three who are on the major-league roster right now, and clear alternatives in free agency for the Red Sox and their budget. The first base question has also been answered: it might turn out that, by this time next year, no one particularly enjoys that answer, but when you scour the available alternatives and realize how important a mid-tier prospect like Sam Travis might be to the organization and their future at first, giving Hanley a go makes sense.