I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox have some lineup issues that need to be addressed this winter. Granted, I still believe that the biggest key to Boston’s offense improving lies with the players that will be returning to the roster from last season, but it’s undeniable that a big bat or two would certainly be a welcome addition to Fenway. Of course, these additions aren’t free and it’s essentially guaranteed that they will be adding significant payroll to get these players. They are almost certainly going to surpass the luxury tax threshold, and Dave Dombrowski has acknowledged that fact. This is a good thing, though not unexpected. Of course, with the heightened penalties for repeat offenders, it stands to reason that Boston will not want to stay over that threshold year after year. Because of that, future payroll is on the back of everyone’s minds at all times. The Red Sox want to keep that down, and while there are multiple ways to do so, one way to reduce the short-term future payroll is by making sure Hanley Ramirez’ option for 2019 does not vest.
When Ramirez came back to Boston prior to the 2015 season, he signed a four-year deal with an option for a fifth year. He is entering the fourth year, which means it’s time to start looking at that option. For that fifth year to vest, he needs to receive 1050 plate appearances between 2017 and 2018 as well as pass a physical at the end of the 2018 season. He came to the plate 553 times in 2017, which means that he needs 497 plate appearances in 2018 for that option to vest, assuming he’s also able to pass that physical. He’s set to earn $22 million in 2019 if that option does vest, and many see it as necessary for the Red Sox to start working now to make sure that does not happen. After the year he had last year, I certainly see why people feel this way, but I’m not really sure I agree with the premise.
To start, it would be impossible and disingenuous of me to claim that he was anything besides disappointing in 2017. In those 553 plate appearances Ramirez hit .242/.320/.429 for a wRC+ of 93. As a guy who, at best, adds minimal defensive value if he’s playing first base, that is unacceptable. He both needs to add power to that line as well as get on base a lot more than he did.
When we talk about that vesting option, though, we aren’t talking about his 2017 performance but rather what to expect moving forward. The real question is whether or not you think his current true-talent at this point in his career is anything close to that disappointing line. I do not. Ramirez underwent shoulder surgery immediately following the season, and it’s hard to imagine that injury was not affecting his performance at the plate during the year. We saw in 2015 how much a shoulder injury can affect him, and he came back extremely strong in 2016 with a 128 wRC+. If he can post that kind of season again in 2018, I would certainly have no problem bringing him back for 2019.
There’s also the fact that, just looking at some of his batted ball numbers, one would have expected his overall performance to be better than it was. There were a lot of issues with Ramirez’ year, but his plate discipline was largely consistent with where it’s been over his career. The bigger problem was what happened on balls in play, as he didn’t hit enough extra-base hits and didn’t get enough balls to fall in for singles. This is strange considering he had his lowest groundball rate since 2013, as well as his highest line drive and flyball rates since that same season. It should be mentioned that he posted a 191 wRC+ in 2013. Furthermore, he had his lowest popup rate in this stint with the Red Sox, something that can often be indicative of consistent hard contact. On top of that, his 35 percent hard-hit rate according to Fangraphs was still good enough to put him in the top 38 percent of the league. For what it’s worth, the eye test from watching him on a daily basis didn’t really reflect these positive numbers, but the numbers themselves suggest Hanley was much better than his final line.
None of this is to say that Ramirez is guaranteed to take a significant step forward in 2018. Despite having a healthy shoulder and coming off a year that could be argued was weighed down by bad luck, he will be 34 years old in 2018. It’s always smart to have some level of skepticism around players of that age. That is why it’s important to have backup plans, and the Red Sox do. They have Sam Travis, who is not someone I’m particularly high on but someone the team believes in. They have Bryce Brentz on the 40-man roster who could get some time in the outfield and DH. They have Michael Chavis, who certainly won’t be ready in the first half but with another strong year he could come up and contribute later in 2018. They also have players like Howie Kendrick available in free agency who could cover second base early in the year then spell Ramirez if it looks like his option needs to be avoided.
Future payroll is always a concern for every team and it’s obviously something the Red Sox should be aware of at all times. That being said, this is a team in a win-now window and Dombrowski needs to make his priority making the roster as strong as possible. That means planning on the best possible lineup, and the best possible Red Sox lineup is one that includes a full-strength Ramirez. To start the season, the Red Sox need to give him every opportunity to prove that he is still that guy, and if he is then they need to let him keep hitting even if that option vests. When he’s at his best, he’s easily worth $22 million. If it doesn’t work out, there are other options in place to make sure he doesn’t reach the 497 plate appearance mark. At this point, though, the best-case scenario for the Red Sox would be him performing well enough that they’re happy he blows by that mark.