The free-agent signings of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were supposed to bring stability to the Red Sox this season. Given their long track records of success, Hanley and Pablo looked set to provide Boston's offense with a necessary boost after a lackluster 2014 campaign.
That injuries and illness have conspired to prevent both players from finishing the season is fitting in some regard considering their woeful production in 2015. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, Ramirez and Sandoval rank as the two worst position players in MLB this season, according to FanGraphs. Heading into April, these numbers would have been shocking for Red Sox fans, but they aren't exactly a revelation for those who have watched the team this year.
Such poor production, along with both players' absence to close out the season, has led some observers to wonder if Ramirez and Sandoval have played their final games with the club. While Dave Dombrowski has dropped few hints regarding his offseason plans, there's little denying that he's inherited what look to be two awful contracts, neither of which he is responsible for. And, as Boston has closed out 2015 on a high note without either Ramirez or Sandoval, one has to wonder if the organization might be better off without the veteran duo moving forward.
Can Dombrowski move both contracts this winter? And if he does, what would the Red Sox roster look like without Ramirez and Sandoval to begin 2016?
Although the thought of simply jettisoning both players elsewhere this offseason is agreeable, such a situation likely isn't realistic. Boston will have to surrender money and prospects just to move one of them, and trading both in a scenario where the team has little leverage would probably prove too costly. A fresh start without either contract on the books would be ideal in a perfect world, but it likely doesn't make sense for a Red Sox team that loves to maintain depth down on the farm.
So which player should Dombrowski look to deal this winter?
Despite Sandoval's worrisome decline in the field (and steady dip in offensive production the past few years), trading away Ramirez makes the most sense for Boston.
There's no guarantee, first of all, that Ramirez's transition to first base will go any better than his move to left field. Hanley's also proven to be far more injury prone than Pablo during his career. Ramirez has played over 150 games just once since 2010, and we've already seen the manner in which nagging injuries can affect his production over the course of a long season.
Sandoval, despite missing some time this year, has generally been a better bet to stay healthy. Moreover, given his track record, there's also a chance that Sandoval can recoup some of that defensive value he lost in the field. Expecting Ramirez to be anything but a below-average defender at first base is likely wishful thinking. Sandoval, at least, has a long track record of performing adequately with the glove, his 2015 struggles notwithstanding.
Even more crucially, the Red Sox have far more options to replace Ramirez at first base than they have to fill in for Sandoval at third. Dombrowski could deal Ramirez and then turn around and sign free-agent-to-be Chris Davis, who is finishing up a strong season in Baltimore and has the most home runs in baseball since the beginning of 2012.
Yet rather than risk another expensive, free agent contract, Dombrowski could also hand Travis Shaw an extended opportunity at first base. Shaw will almost certainly be better with the glove than Ramirez, and his .280/.342/.510 line over 60 games this season indicates he might be better than he showed down in the minors. Pairing Shaw with a platoon partner like Steve Pearce, who is also a free agent, could be a shrewd alternative for Dombrowski. The performance of Sam Travis down in Double-A this season also gives the Red Sox further security at first.
At third base, on the other hand, Boston has far fewer options with which to replace Sandoval. The Red Sox don't possess any sufficient in-house alternatives, unless you're an extremely loyal member of the Garin Cecchini bandwagon. Deven Marrero, despite the playing time he's received down the stretch, isn't the solution either.
The free-agent market is also devoid of any appealing choices at the hot corner. David Freese and Juan Uribe are probably the two best available third baseman this offseason, and neither represents a dependable long-term solution. Unless Dombrowski wants to get creative, and land a new third baseman via trade, he'll have a far easier time replacing Ramirez.
None of this guarantees that the Red Sox will, in fact, deal away Hanley this offseason. For now, at least publicly, they appear willing to give him a shot at first base next spring.
Still, it's hard to imagine Boston handing both Ramirez and Sandoval starting jobs in 2016 and expecting all to go well. There have been enough whispers and rumors from those who cover the team on a daily basis to suggest that a trade to discard one of the contracts will happen. And given the choice, the Red Sox are in a far better position to deal Hanley than Pablo.