By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In the era of Twitter and 24/7 coverage of literally everything, it takes a lot to be blind-sided by news in 2018. But the Red Sox managed to surprise just about everybody on Friday.
With Dustin Pedroia getting activated off the disabled list, everybody and their mother knew that it was time for the Red Sox to mercifully designate Blake Swihart for assignment, allowing him to finally get a chance to play baseball. People have been speculating about this move for months. It was going to happen.
And when Robert Murray of Fan Rag Sports suggested on Friday morning that perhaps the Red Sox would instead part ways with Hanley Ramirez, the idea seemed outlandish. Dumping a contributing player who bats third in order to save a player not deemed good enough to ever crack the starting lineup? What kind of tomfoolery is that?
Well, it didn’t take long for that speculation to turn into reality, as Alex Speier first reported (and the Red Sox confirmed shortly thereafter) that the team would be designating Ramirez for assignment.
If you said you weren’t surprised by the news, you’d be lying. (Except for you, Robert Murray.)
Granted, the reasoning behind the move is somewhat understandable. Ramirez was just 322 plate appearances away from triggering a vesting option in his contract, one which would have left the Red Sox on the hook for Hanley and his $22 million salary in 2019. One can certainly understand the team’s lack of desire to spend $22 million on a 35-year-old Ramirez next year.
And it’s not as if Ramirez is tearing the cover off the ball. He’s actually 0-for-20 in his last five games, reaching base via walk just once. That’s the end of a larger slump, one in which he’s hit .163 with a .500 OPS in the month of May. It’s been a major cooldown since Ramirez’s strong start to the season.
Put that all together and among Red Sox regulars, Ramirez ranks seventh in OPS, better only than Eduardo Nunez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Christian Vazquez. And considering Ramirez’s presence creates a bit of a logjam in the J.D. Martinez-Mitch Moreland dynamic, one can see why the Red Sox may not be overly worried about the loss of Ramirez. Plus with Pedroia returning, there is a bit of a seamless transition with a top-of-the-lineup player ready to step in.
From a baseball perspective, it’s not incredibly difficult to understand the reasoning.
But from a financial standpoint and a roster management standpoint, it’s still a bit puzzling.
If the move was made because the Red Sox deemed Swihart too valuable to lose for nothing, then why do the Red Sox also deem Swihart unworthy of ever playing? Through 50 games of the season, Swihart has started just four times. He’s stepped to the plate just 33 times. Only Chris Sale and Brian Johnson have registered fewer plate appearances.
Those men are pitchers.
If the reason for dumping Ramirez was solely to keep Swihart, then the Red Sox open themselves up to some questions. Did they try to trade Ramirez in the spring? Are they confident that Swihart (21 total hits in the past three MLB seasons) can be as good or better than Ramirez? And will Swihart even play more now?
Likewise, if the reason for the decision was mostly financial, there are still some questions. Yes, preventing $22 million from being on the books next year is a positive for the Red Sox, but having roughly $15 million of dead money on the books this year to achieve that freedom is a serious mitigating factor. Remember, the Red Sox are already carrying $30 million of dead money for their overpayments to Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo. That was already most in the majors, and now they’ve just added $15 million.
While on the one hand it’s a respectable move to admit some mismanagement, what does it say about Dave Dombrowski and the front office’s vision to have $45 million of dead money in 2018?
Of course, a trade could still be negotiated, but there won’t be many teams knocking down the door to give (essentially) $37 million for a year-and-a-half of Hanley Ramirez. A situation like Sandoval’s is much more likely, leaving the Red Sox footing a $15 million bill just for the right to get rid of a player in the middle of a season.
The move could also have some other, less-quantifiable effects. In a young clubhouse, the 34-year-old Ramirez seemed to be a leader of sorts. He seemed to be a much matured player from the star who budded in the Marlins organization, and manager Alex Cora threw a lot of support and faith behind Ramirez from day one on the job. None of that is to say that the removal of Ramirez from the locker room will send his now-former teammates into a tailspin, but the loss of a gregarious character like Ramirez is one that will certainly be noticed.
Again, strictly from a baseball perspective, the Red Sox are equipped to handle the removal of Ramirez, even though he’s batted third and played in 44 of 50 games. Pedroia may take a week or two to fully catch up to speed, but a lineup of Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Pedroia and Martinez is still as good as any. (Pedroia, injuries and all, has a .799 OPS since 2015. Ramirez has a .777 OPS since 2015.)
Nevertheless, dumping Ramirez in a seemingly hasty move in late May does not necessarily reflect well on the long-term planning of Dombrowski and the front office. And the millions upon millions (upon millions) of dollars John Henry will have to pay players to not play for the Red Sox this year continues to grow.