For the second straight offseason, Hanley Ramirez will face the task of learning a new position for the Red Sox. Given his highly publicized struggles in left field this year, that isn't exactly a comforting thought for Boston fans.
Yet with the outfield experiment clearly a lost cause, the Red Sox have little choice but to see how Ramirez can handle first base. Unless the club finds some way to deal his contract over the winter, such a move is Ramirez's only way onto the roster in 2016.
Tons of MLB players have made the transition to first base over the years, and Boston has some recent experience in helping Mike Napoli convert to the position back in 2013. Ramirez, however, is a unique case, and if his struggles in the outfield are any indication, another position switch could be anything but straightforward.
While plenty of shortstops and left fielders have shifted over to first base in the past, rarely has one player moved from shortstop to the outfield to first base within a span of two seasons.
Still, there is precedent for the move Hanley will make next season, transitioning, as a poor defensive left fielder, to first base. What can past examples of players who swapped an outfield glove for a first baseman's mitt tell us about Ramirez's outlook?
Using Baseball Reference's Play Index, I created a list of hitters who played at least 20% of their games at left field and first base from 2005 to 2015 (min. 500 career plate appearances).
The results yielded 17 players, many of who could be described as poor defensive outfielders. At the top of the list, Adam Dunn, Carlos Lee, Adam Lind, and Michael Morse certainly fit this bill, and for the most part, just about every hitter in the group was forced to move to first base for defensive reasons.
While none of these players will be confused for Gold Glove contenders, plenty ended up making a successful transition to first base. Lind, Brandon Moss, and Steve Pearce have all rated as average (or slightly below) at their new position, with Pearce actually putting up some impressive advanced fielding numbers for the Orioles over the past two seasons.
The good news is there don't seem to be any outright defensive disasters. Dunn was never the world's greatest first baseman, but he proved adequate enough to handle the position, especially when factoring in his offensive contributions. The same goes for Lee, who was actually a surprisingly solid fielder at first base for the Astros toward the end of his career.
What the most successful of these first-base converts have in common is above-average offensive production. If Ramirez's transition back to the infield is going to work out, he'll need to rediscover the early-season form he showed at the plate. The likes of Dunn, Morse, and Moss contributed steadily with the bat during their time at first base, and Ramirez will need to hit like the middle-of-the-order threat the Red Sox signed him to be.
In terms of body type and athletic ability, finding a perfect comp for Hanley on this list is difficult. Many of these players are burly types with little speed, and while Ramirez certainly has plenty of upper body strength, he's not exactly cut from the same cloth as someone like Dunn or Morse.
For that reason, I created a second list of hitters who played at least 10% of their games at shortstop and first base between 2000 and 2015 (min. 500 plate appearances) in hopes of finding some better comparable players to Hanley. The list is just 10 players and features some interesting names, most notably Rich Aurilia and old Red Sox friend Nomar Garciaparra.
Aurilia actually turned into a solid first baseman for the Giants, at least judging by advanced defensive metrics, even if his offensive production dipped at the end of his career. Nomar never put up great numbers after moving from shortstop, but he did seem to improve as time went on.
The rest of the list is made up of more utility-type players, none of who really have much in common with Ramirez from a talent standpoint. And to some extent, that's the reality the Red Sox are facing with Hanley's switch to first base. Very rarely has a player with his track record and experience at shortstop made this move at such a young age.
On one hand, considering few players have had much issue transitioning to first, the Red Sox have some reason to be optimistic about the move. But few expected Ramirez to struggle so mightily in left field, leaving plenty of doubt as to how comfortable he'll be at another new position. Whether it's a matter of work ethic, defensive instincts, or comfort, there will be loads of question marks surrounding Hanley's transition to first base next spring.
More importantly for Boston, Ramirez will have to perform much better at the plate in 2016. All the attention given to his struggles in left field has likely affected his offensive performance, and one has to wonder just how much that shoulder injury he suffered in early May has sapped his power.
The scrutiny over Hanley's defense won't just disappear overnight, however, and the Red Sox can ill afford yet another season in which he looks woefully out of place defensively. Still, barring an utter disaster, Ramirez's ability to hit like a first baseman will be just as important as his performance with the glove.