Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (May 23, 2018 – Source: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America)
Conventional wisdom was thrown out the window earlier today when the Boston Red Sox designated Hanley Ramirez for assignment. With the return of Dustin Pedroia, most expected utility backup Blake Swihart to get the ax. However, the Sox opted to keep Swihart and dump Hanley. So why did the Sox make this move, and how does it affect the roster moving forward?
Why the Boston Red Sox Parted Ways With Hanley Ramirez
First off, let’s address why the Red Sox made such a move. Ramirez has the potential to be one of the better power bats in the lineup and is beloved in the clubhouse. The Sox needed to have good reasons to make this move, and it basically came down to two factors: Hanley’s recent struggles and Hanley’s massive vesting option.
The past season and a half have not been kind for the slugging first baseman. After playing most of 2017 with a wrist injury, Hanley finished the season with an underwhelming .242/.320/.429 slash line to go along with 23 home runs and just a 93 wRC+. While the production wasn’t what the Red Sox hoped for, the blame was placed almost entirely on his wrist injury.
The thought entering the 2018 season was that a now-healthy Hanley would get back to his 2016 form. He changed his workout routine and looked like the old Hanley for the first month of the season. Through April, Hanley posted a .330/.400/.474 slash line with an astonishingly good 192 wRC+. Granted, these stats were inflated by an unsustainable .392 BABIP, but Hanley was hitting the ball well.
Then, as the calendar turned, he suddenly wasn’t. Since the start of May, Hanley’s posted just a .163/.200/.300 slash line to go along with a truly horrendous 28 wRC+. He’s been a ground ball machine, driving pitches into the dirt almost 60% of the time. He ended his Red Sox tenure on a 0-21 streak, and he couldn’t justify a spot in the lineup.
So if Hanley isn’t hitting, then why isn’t he just a bench guy? Mitch Moreland is outplaying Hanley, but somebody needs to be the backup. Why not Hanley? Manager Alex Cora said he didn’t think Hanley would fit as a bench player, but there’s more to it than that.
The reason to that lies in Hanley’s contract. The first baseman was on the final year of his deal, but there was a $22 million dollar vesting option that became guaranteed if Hanley reaches 497 plate appearances. Through the first two months of the season, Hanley already had 195 plate appearances.
Not only was Hanley on pace to meet this marker, he was set to run laps around it. The Red Sox front office already stated that they’d pay Hanley if his play warranted it. However, his play is not warranting that type of payday by any means.
Even if Hanley were used in a pure bench role the rest of the season, he’d still have a good shot at reaching the 497 threshold. Put bluntly, there’s no way a rotational player is worth anything close to that. Boston already has the highest payroll in the league and is slated to hand out several big contracts in the upcoming years. They can’t afford to re-sign all their players and pay an underperforming Hanley. Regardless of what Dave Dombrowski and Alex Cora say, Hanley’s contract played a big role in the day’s events.
Where Do We Go From Here?
While the move clearly frees up a lot of financial space, what do the Red Sox do with their first base position? Up until this point, Mitch Moreland has been the primary backup and is the easy choice to take over starting duties. The waters get a bit muddier behind him, though.
The top backup at the moment is probably former catcher Blake Swihart. Swihart has been rotting away on the bench thus far, serving as the teams backup option at several positions. However, with Hanley out of the way, he’s sure to get some time at first base. Outside of a few late-game appearances, Swihart has never played first at the major league level, and it should be interesting to see how he adjusts.
The other options are Brock Holt and Sam Travis. At this point in his career, Brock Holt is who he is. He can play all seven positions (outside of catcher and pitcher) and is a solid fill-in for a few starts a year. However, he’s not an everyday player. While he is a good contact hitter, he doesn’t have much power and has a long history of injuries.
Sam Travis has spent most of his career in the minor leagues while making a few short appearances in the majors. He’s limited defensively, so he’d need to make a difference with his bat. While he has the build and all the tools to be a solid power hitter, he’s never put it together. Outside of spring training, when he’s annually the best hitter in baseball, Travis has struggled to hit for power. This season with Pawtucket, Travis is batting just .222, hitting just five doubles and two home runs in 99 at-bats. Not ideal production, and he’ll probably remain with Pawtucket for the foreseeable future.
Unfiltered First Base Thoughts
While it came out of left field, the decision to move on from Hanley Ramirez is a good one. Hanley’s wasn’t producing in the lineup, and Mitch Moreland was clearly the better first baseman. Additionally, his massive contract ensured that he would have likely seen his $22 million dollar roster bonus, which the Red Sox could not afford to pay.
The biggest fallout from this is who will take his place. The Red Sox don’t have an established first base option behind Moreland, which hopefully won’t come back to hurt the team. Swihart is the most likely candidate, and the team clearly sees something in him since they essentially chose to keep him over Hanley. Nonetheless, this is a big moment for Swihart, and he’ll need to prove that he’s up for the task. Contending rosters need their depth pieces to step up, and Swihart is now in a position to play a decent role on the team. Only time will tell if he’s up for this task, but the Red Sox clearly think he is.