The Dodgers are done now, and so are the Astros. The Red Sox have been done for a long time, but their goal is to still be playing this time next season. We’ve talked until we’re red in the face about the tasks ahead for Dave Dombrowski, Mike Hazen, and the rest of the rebuilt, re-engineered Red Sox front office, and we’re going to get to do it a bit more before free agency starts up and the trading season gets going, too. So, with the goal of making your face just a bit more red, perhaps it’s time to discuss the Red Sox first base situation.
This smacks of 2014. It’s a situation with a multiple redundancies, and it’s entirely likely that each of those will fail. The situation the Red Sox find themselves in, coming off a season that saw them finish 19th in WAR by first baseman, is with two, and maybe three first base possibilities on the roster. The first is the recently endorsed Hanley Ramirez. I wrote a while back about how moving Ramirez to first base is a terrible idea. In the piece I said of moving Ramirez, “It’s a terrible idea.” That’s not to say there’s any better place to put him, though. It’s like Churchill’s famous quote about democracy. It’s the worst form of government except for all the others. First base is the worst place to put Hanley Ramirez, except for every other place on the field.
Even so, there are basic problems with putting Hanley at first, namely he’s never played there before and we’ve seen how that worked in left field. There was a time when you’d have said “he played major league shortstop for the better part of a decade, so he can play first base,” but now you can’t say that because 2015 happened. Yet the Red Sox are proceeding like he will be able to play there. This is strange, except maybe it isn’t. Remember how last off-season the Red Sox were talking about Yoenis Cespedes? He was an integral part of the club and was going to play center field if needed and blah blah blah and then they traded him, which we knew they would all along. This feels like that.
It’s like Churchill’s famous quote about democracy. First base is the worst place to put Hanley Ramirez, except for every other place on the field.
We all wanted Hanley to work out back in Boston but if he can’t play defense and DH is taken and the AL isn’t going to adopt a second DH just to spite the NL, then the Red Sox’ hands seem tied. Then again, counter argument: Hanley has zero trade value now. Nobody would want his contract. Last week in this space I speculated about the Red Sox re-acquiring Jacoby Ellsbury from the Yankees, who would in turn take back a bad contract to even things out. While writing that piece I considered putting Hanley into that bad contract spot, but I went with Allen Craig instead because, ridiculous as that whole idea was, putting Hanley into the deal made it that much more ridiculous. The Yankees don’t have a spot for him to play because there isn’t a spot for him to play almost anywhere on the field. So when you look at it from that perspective, there’s really nothing to lose, because there is no value there right now anyway. A stock with zero value can’t drop any further.
The problem is, if the Red Sox are going to keep Ramirez and try to teach him first base, then they’re locking themselves in to a Ramirez/Travis Shaw first base situation. If Ramirez is to be the starter, it’ll be hard to convince a decent free agent to come to Boston.
As for Shaw, he had a spectacular run in Boston during the second half of the 2015 season but is anyone buying .274/.331/.491 from a guy with a .256/.319/.395 slash line in Triple-A? Maybe Shaw has figured something out, but if so it isn’t walking, as he walked in only 7.3 percent of his plate appearances this season while striking out in 23 percent. That’s not wholly unsustainable, or even awful, but you have to be able to drive the ball to have value with numbers like that. Shaw did, but I’m not sure I want to bet on that ability sticking around next season and beyond. It’s fine if he’s a back-up who can play some third base, but as a starter you’re rolling some serious dice.
So now we’ve got a guy who couldn’t play left field and has no experience at the position playing first base and begin backed up by a guy with a track record of mediocrity in the minors. That could work, and it could work very well, but you don’t have to squint very hard to see how things could turn out badly.
The alternative if both Ramirez and Shaw fail, hardly an impossibility, is Sam Travis. Travis has done a nice job in the minors since Boston picked him in the second round in 2014. He might be a starting first baseman in the majors one day, but he’s played just half a season above Single-A so that time isn’t likely now, or anytime before September of next season as the very earliest. He hit just fine in Double-A for sure, a slash line of .300/.384/.436 while walking and striking out almost in equal measure, and it’s not inconceivable that he could reach Boston in the near future, but is that the kind of thing you want to count on happening? Maybe, but if so the Red Sox shouldn’t agree with you.
Unlike last season, the Red Sox need to be prepared for Ramirez to fail at first base because knowing what we know and having seen what we’ve seen, that seems like the most likely scenario. They have to be prepared for Travis Shaw to turn back into what he’s looked like for the past few seasons, which is a capable backup at best. And they have to be prepared for Sam Travis to hit a bump or two and not be able to jump two more levels and start at first base for the Red Sox next season.
So now the question is, how do you do that? Of course there is the prime free agent at first base: Chris Davis, Scott Boras client and formerly of the Baltimore Orioles. Davis would out-hit Ramirez and certainly he would out-field him as well, and maybe if Ramirez can be off-loaded somewhere else, that’s where the Red Sox choose to spend the money, but that seems unlikely. More likely is that if the Red Sox want Davis, they’re going to end up spending between $40 and $50 million on first baseman next season between he and Ramirez. Also, as good as Davis is, he doesn’t seem like the place the front office is determined to burn their capital on because Davis doesn’t pitch (no, I don’t want to talk about it, thanks).
Which brings us back to Ramirez, Shaw, and Travis. The Red Sox tried banking on uncertainty in 2014 and it failed them miserably. They tried it again this season with Ramirez and again, it failed. It’s for that reason I have a hard time believing Dave Dombrowski when he says Ramirez will be the starting first baseman next season.
Thing is, he may not be lying when he says it because when it comes down to it, he may not have another choice.
Photo by Andy Marlin/USA Today Sports Images