Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are now both members of a Red Sox team that’s looking like a pretty good bet to not only climb out of the AL East cellar, but also perhaps reclaim the division title with a few more shrewd moves relating to a currently suspect pitching staff.
Flash back to Aug. 5, when the Red Sox were 49-63, owners of the third-worst record in the league, 15 games out of first place in the AL East and coming off a stretch of two wins in 13 games. At the lowest of low points for Red Sox fans, imagine what it would have done for their morale had they known about what was coming on Monday, Nov. 24.
That date might go down as a turning point in the team’s fortunes, or it might be one that leaves the Red Sox with two massive contracts that prove to be insufferable burdens for the next five years. (Or, more likely, it might produce a result somewhere in between. Yes, there is a middle ground.)
There’s a lot to process here: How much will these two new additions actually help the Red Sox? What does this mean for the Giants and Dodgers, and for the NL West as a whole? Are there long-standing implications from these two deals that will perhaps set some precedents going forward? If you like baseball as much as I do, you’ll enjoy diving into these issues, which I’ve done as best I could through the following words.
Sandoval's decision to leave San Francisco
Sandoval’s six-and-a-half years in San Francisco created a lot of memories that would have been tough for any player to walk away from. Practically speaking, however, the move makes sense for him. Yes, one could argue that no fan base in all of baseball loved a single player more than Giants fans adored Sandoval. And yes, Boston fans might not be so forgiving if Panda starts the season with a .177 batting average in April, as he did with the Giants this season.
But outside of that, Sandoval’s situation in Boston just might be perfect. He’ll play half his games at Fenway Park, the fifth-most hitter friendly park in the majors last season according to ESPN’s ballpark data, a nice transition from the sixth-most pitcher friendly stadium, AT&T Park. That’s not counting the good chunk of the other 81 games that Sandoval will play in the rest of the AL East’s hitter’s parks, namely Yankee Stadium, Rogers Centre and Camden Yards, while also eliminating Petco Park and Dodger Stadium—places where home runs go to die—from the equation.
Also, if Sandoval balloons to his previous weight totals by the end of his contract with the Red Sox, he can just switch over to the DH spot, which will presumably be freed up by then with David Ortiz’s retirement on the horizon and Boston’s crop of young infield prospects set to take over in the field.
The only real risk factor for Sandoval is moving away from a team that has been labeled by some as a dynasty to a team that has lost more than 90 games in two of the last three years. But even with Boston’s current mess of a rotation, the lack of pitching shouldn’t be much of a serious concern. The Red Sox probably never would have signed Sandoval and Ramirez if they didn’t have a plan for shoring up their rotation, and that plan should be an obvious one. The team is stacked with hitting—there are literally too many position players to fit on the field—and by the beginning of the 2015 season, it would be astounding—almost statistically improbable, in my mind—for the Red Sox to be stuck with their same pitching rotation, the back end of which currently features Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa and Brandon Workman. That should change.
Do the deals make sense for the Red Sox?
The real win here for Boston is that Ramirez and Sandoval both agreed to sign medium-length deals, which means that the Red Sox won’t be stuck with two bloated contracts (and perhaps a bloated player if Sandoval struggles with his weight) seven years from now. Though both hitters instantly improve Boston’s roster, they’re not perfect: They each have long-term concerns that make them better suited to play DH down the road, a spot that only one of them can fill when Ortiz retires.
In a way, these two deals are similar to the one Russell Martin signed with the Blue Jays last Tuesday, in the sense that both times, the teams decided to bite the bullet and sign contracts that will almost surely look very ugly in three or four years. It’s anyone’s guess as to how well Sandoval and Ramirez will perform in the field (and even at the plate) near the ends of their contracts, but it might not be pretty.
Even so, Ramirez and Sandoval are good enough to justify two massive contracts (which don’t look so massive given some of the most recent long-term signings). Ramirez, like Sandoval, will benefit from a move away from a deadly ballpark for hitters, and that is reflected in his always-steady wRC+ numbers, which do take ballpark factors into account. Even last season, when Ramirez failed to live up to the expectations of his 2013 production, he still posted a 135 wRC+, which is actually a slight step above his career 133 mark. Whether or not Ramirez hits like it’s 2013 again, however, one part of the former Dodgers shortstop’s game is all but settled: his poor defense.
Ramirez seems destined for a permanent spot as a designated hitter before too long, given his struggles in the field last season. But Sandoval himself noted that the DH option influenced his decision to sign with the Red Sox over the Giants, which potentially creates an awkward situation down the road when Ramirez’s poor defense will likely necessitate his move to DH.
Meanwhile, Sandoval’s decline at the plate has been well documented, but for now, he has to be considered at least in the ballpark of "elite" with his relatively steady regular season production (despite the slight dropoff) and historic hitting in October.
Of course, Sandoval is earning big bucks in large part because he’s the all-time leader in postseason batting average among players with 150 or more plate appearances. It will certainly be interesting to see how sustainable that is (assuming the Red Sox make it to October during Sandoval’s time in Boston), especially given Sandoval has only played regularly in two playoff runs. (He was 3-for-17 in 2010 before exploding in 2012 and 2014.) Though it’s a nice sample size, it’s also no Jeter-esque number of plate appearances.
In the end, the Red Sox are a better team than they were on Sunday (the day before the signings), and their now-surplus of hitters gives them options trade-wise, which we’ll discuss in the following section.
What this means for Boston going forward
The Red Sox now have a lot of great hitters and not a lot of great pitchers, which seemingly indicates that a trade is on the horizon.
If Ramirez does indeed move to left field, Yoenis Cespedes is the odd man out. Though he was decently productive for the Red Sox after coming over at the non-waiver trade deadline, driving in 33 runs with a .423 slugging percentage in 51 games, Cespedes and his sub-.300 on-base percentage dating back to the start of 2013 simply aren’t up to par for a Boston lineup that could be the best in baseball. As Jonah Keri of Grantland pointed out, Boston’s projected lineup excludes Cespedes, Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, Jackie Bradley Jr., Daniel Nava, Brock Holt, Will Middlebrooks and Garin Cecchini, which gives the Red Sox plenty of options on the trade market. Starting pitchers David Price, Jordan Zimmerman and Jeff Samardzija all have just one year remaining on their contracts, and all three of them have been linked to trades in some capacity. The Sox’ wealth of prospects makes it realistic to a certain degree that they could acquire one of those three (or even the Phillies’ Cole Hamels), or they could pursue less elite pitching. Three top free agent starters—James Shields, Max Scherzer and Jon Lester—all remain on the market as well.
CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman wrote in his story announcing the deals that Boston is "believed prepared to offer [Lester] close to $130 million over six years," which would be a big step forward in shoring up a very questionable rotation. The point is, however, that the Red Sox have a huge array of options when it comes to acquiring starting pitching. It’s now up to them to put together the right deals—and it all starts with Cespedes.
Where does San Francisco go from here?
Though the Giants payroll is already locked up quite a bit with their collection of long-term contracts devoted to players like Buster Posey, Matt Cain and Hunter Pence, letting Sandoval walk does free up some space to address other needs. Namely, they’ll need to look for a left fielder to replace Michael Morse, or perhaps a starting pitcher to solidify a rotation that’s already strong but also at times felt like it was held together by Scotch tape last year. (And, of course, third base is suddenly a major need for San Francisco.)
Unsurprisingly, Grant Brisbee put it best when he noted that the Giants really can’t afford to be picky at this point, writing, "the Giants are in Walgreens a half-hour before their anniversary dinner." It’s true, and Brian Sabean knows it. Though the free agent class of hitters is particularly slim, especially with Ramirez and Sandoval gone, options still remain—but the Giants will have to act quickly. They’ve been linked to Yasmany Tomas, the home run-hitting outfielder out of Cuba who could fill the void left in the lineup by Sandoval’s departure. Chase Headley, the longtime Padre who tallied 396 plate appearances against the Giants across parts of eight years in San Diego, also serves as an option. But Headley has a history of struggling in pitcher-friendly ballparks while playing in the NL West. (He hit .243/.331/.372 at Petco Park over 1797 plate appearances and was hardly better at AT&T Park with a .720 OPS.)
The dominant bat that carried San Francisco through the playoffs is gone. Though Posey and Pence provide solid production in the heart of the Giants order, the lineup still is a bit lacking when it comes to that power-hitting, run-producing slugger that almost every successful lineup features. Though the Giants have found a way to make it work as recently as this past season (Posey led the team with 22 homers and 89 RBI), signing Tomas would certainly make up for the Panda-sized loss, even if it wouldn't be the most typical Brian Sabean move.
What about the Dodgers?
Dee Gordon is looking for a double play partner and the Dodgers have the money to provide him with one. But what are their options?
Andrew Friedman and his new sidekick, GM Farhan Zaidi, don’t need to go out and drop millions of dollars on a long-term contract for a Hanley replacement. Instead, they’re a good bet to turn to their current talent, like Erisbel Arruebarrena, the 24-year-old utility infielder from Cuba who had a .333 average and .852 OPS in 95 plate appearances at Triple-A last year, as they slowly ease superstar prospect Corey Seager into the six hole.
Except it might not have to be a "slow ease." Seager tore up High-A and Double-A last year, hitting .345 with a .915 OPS at the latter level. MLB.com ranks him as its 13th-best overall prospect, and scouts project him to be an above-average fielder. Though his plate discipline (40 walks, 115 strikeouts in 2014) isn’t advanced, the tools are there for Seager to aptly replace Ramirez, even if it doesn’t happen immediately.