As we’ve talked about ad nauseam so far this offseason, there are a number of different roads the Red Sox can take this winter. This is true of pretty much every team, of course, and likely to a larger extent for many other clubs. However, it’s a little different for a Red Sox team that a has so many different options considering they really only have one goal: To find a new bat to stick in the middle of their order. From there, they have choices. There’s J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, Lucas Duda, Jay Bruce, Logan Morrison, Jose Abreu and even some pipe dreams like Freddie Freeman and Joey Votto. These are different types of players with different price tags at different points of their careers but all are (semi) realistic Red Sox targets.
When trying to figure out which road Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox will take, the main driver is obviously the cost to acquire each of their targets. They will weigh the cost against the expected production and make the decision from there. Beyond that, though, there is another factor at play. That is Hanley Ramirez, who has a lot of questions around him heading into 2018. The answers (or at least guesses at the answers) are the key to the Red Sox’ winter. That isn’t to say he is the most important player on the team — that’s still either Chris Sale or Mookie Betts. It also doesn’t mean his improvement is most crucial — I’d argue that’s either Xander Bogaerts or Andrew Benintendi. It just means that Boston can’t really get on with their plans until they answer a couple of key questions.
The first bit of questioning involves his ability to play first base. Ramirez, of course, was the team’s everyday first baseman back in 2016 after being an unmitigated disaster in left field for the 2015 season. Although the slugger wasn’t anything close to elite at first base two years ago, he was at least passable. There are varying opinions on this, as is the case with anyone but those at the extreme ends of the defensive scouting reports, but I’m writing this so we’ll go with my opinion. There is plenty of room to improve and Mitch Moreland was certainly an improvement with the glove, but Ramirez didn’t kill the team with his defense. He couldn’t do the same thing in 2017, though. The plan was never for him to play every day, but he was supposed to play in the field against left-handed pitching but a shoulder injury prevented him from playing much defense at all over the course of the season.
Now, he’s had surgery on that shoulder and while most of the effects from that procedure will (hopefully) be seen at the plate it could also have an effect on what his role with the team will be. This is not something that we can necessarily determine from the outside, but it is crucial for Boston’s plans. If that shoulder is healthy again and Ramirez is in shape — there is no reason to believe the answer to the latter question is anything but yes — then he should be able to play a fair amount of first base next year. That, in turn, would allow the Red Sox to sign someone like J.D. Martinez or Jay Bruce and stick them at designated hitter. That would give Boston one of the best power bats on the market while not having to break up their outfield.
If Ramirez can’t play first base, things get a little more complicated. Under this scenario, the Red Sox would essentially need a first baseman. If they don’t sign one, that would put Sam Travis on track for an everyday role, and he simply isn’t that caliber of player. So, they could sign Santana, keep Ramirez at DH and the outfield together. I would be fine with that, though it wouldn’t be the splash people look for. They could also do that same thing except with Hosmer instead of Santana. That would be a bigger splash but also add less power to the lineup. They could also sign any of the first baseman plus a Martinez or Bruce then turn around and trade Bradley. The offense would surely improve, but then they’d be hampering their elite outfield defense and the overall net gain becomes much less noticeable.
Along with the defensive questions, there is also that pesky vesting option. This is something we’ve discussed here before, and my take was that the option isn’t as big of a deal as it’s made out to be. Since I’ve written that I’ve softened on that stance based mostly on the fact that literally everyone disagrees. Good life advice: When everyone disagrees with you, take a moment to acknowledge the possibility that you’re wrong. Anyway, I still think Ramirez is poised for a bounce-back at the plate, but I will recognize that the team will probably want to limit his at bats. The degree to which they care about that is an important piece of this puzzle as well, as it will change the possibility of adding extra depth to the bench. If the team is steadfast in its belief that Ramirez’ at bats need to be limited, then it will be more likely that they make a secondary move for a secondary piece along the lines of Adam Duvall or Duda (along with Martinez). If they are comfortable allowing Ramirez earn his vesting option as long as he performs, then they will be more comfortable giving relatively prominent roles to guys like Travis and Bryce Brentz.
Every offseason there are a lot of factors that go into which players will be added to any given roster. This year is no different. The direction of the market is still the most important factor for what Dombrowski will look to do this winter, but the questions around Ramirez will go a long way towards making this a complicated or simple winter for the Red Sox.