If you believe what the Red Sox have said since Dave Dombrowski took over, then the team already has a first baseman for next season in Hanley Ramirez. For the second straight year, Ramirez will try to learn a new position in spring training, and while the veteran slugger’s transition to left field proved disastrous, Boston’s front office doesn’t appear worried about his ability to play first base. At least publicly.
What the Red Sox truly feel behind the scenes is anybody’s guess, and there’s some evidence that the club has no intention of bringing Ramirez back. They sent him home six weeks before the season ended, which isn’t exactly a good look for a player who has a long-held reputation as a clubhouse cancer. Also, Dombrowski didn’t sign Ramirez to his current deal, and perhaps he’ll be far less interested in contending with the 30-year-old’s baggage than Ben Cherington was.
No, Ramirez’s contract, which has three years and $66 million remaining on it, won’t be easy to move. But it’s not an impossible task either, especially if Boston foots part of the bill and throws in a couple of decent prospects for good measure.
Yet if Dombrowski does part with Hanley, who will play first base for the Red Sox in 2016?
Travis Shaw is the obvious in-house candidate, and his performance down the stretch likely earned him a roster spot next season. However, Shaw comes with plenty of question marks, including an inconsistent minor league track record and mediocre road numbers that suggest his true talent level might not be what he showed in the final two months of 2015.
For a squad looking to contend again next year, expecting 500 plate appearances of above-average offense from Shaw is likely wishful thinking.
All of these details make free-agent first baseman Chris Davis an intriguing proposition for the Red Sox. While Dombrowski has stated the team’s main offseason goal is to improve its pitching staff across the board, Boston could decide to trade for a pitcher rather throw money at a top hurler on the open market.
There are reasons to be skeptical about Davis, of course. His career strikeout rate sits at 31 percent, and he goes through his fair share of cold spells at the plate. Whether his home-run production will drop away from the hitter-friendly confines of Camden Yards is a legitimate question, too.
Still, he’s been among the best power hitters in the game over the last four years. Dating back to the start of 2012, in fact, Davis leads all major leaguers in home runs (159), ranks eighth in slugging percentage (.533) and second in ISO (.277). There may not be any hitter in the game with more raw power than Chris Davis.
His performance in 2015, when he batted .262/.361/.562 with 47 home runs, reaffirmed that, even with all the strikeouts, Davis can produce at a level that few hitters in the game are able to match. He’s also stayed healthy throughout much of his career, topping 500 plate appearances in each of his four campaigns with the Orioles.
What Davis can give the Red Sox, then, is a certifiable power threat, and a hitter who can guard against possible regression on offense. Despite Boston’s strong play in the second half, the team’s lineup isn’t certain to perform that well throughout 2016. Pablo Sandoval is a huge question mark, Dustin Pedroia is perpetually sidelined with injury, and the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo could easily prove incapable of full-time roles.
Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and David Ortiz—at the age of 40—shouldn’t be expected to carry the offensive load by themselves.
Just what type of money Davis will command on the open market is the biggest question here. The Red Sox shouldn’t get into a bidding war over Davis, especially if he starts commanding a salary much beyond that $100 million mark.
But nonetheless, would Boston be better served throwing $200 million at Jordan Zimmerman or Zack Greinke, or spending much less than that on Davis? The question can’t easily be answered, but we all know the risks associated with aging starting pitchers as they move into their thirties. At 29 years old, Davis shouldn’t see his power suddenly decline overnight.
Signing Davis, moreover, wouldn’t prevent Shaw or well-regarded prospect Sam Travis from having a future in Boston either. One can imagine Davis fitting snugly into the DH role once Ortiz retires, and both Shaw and Travis need more seasoning before taking on everyday roles anyhow.
What makes this offseason so fascinating is the number of routes Dombrowski could take in fine-tuning the Red Sox roster. He might spend big money in free agency or use the club’s minor-league depth to trade for MLB-ready performers. If Boston’s brass ends up dealing for a starter, they could do worse than spending some money on Davis, whose offensive production is more dependable than his reputation might suggest. You’d have to think the Red Sox would better off with Davis at first than Hanley next season, even if it would take some creative maneuvering from Dombrowski.
Some may view Davis as an unnecessary luxury, especially when the team’s pitching staff needs an upgrade. To be sure, finding a frontline starter is the most important task facing the Red Sox this offseason. Yet the offense shouldn’t be ignored either, and Davis possesses the kind of power that isn’t easily attainable in the modern game.
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