It’s amazing what the addition of a top-flight starter and knockout reliever do to a pitching staff. Many if not most facets of the Red Sox underwhelmed in 2015, but progress has been made — and the team may even be done as it enters what tends to be the busiest week of the offseason. Dave Dombrowski, Mike Hazen and their extended entourage are in Nashville for this year’s Winter Meetings, ready to work, but with a much shorter holiday shopping list. They aren’t just there for the ambience, however, as delightful as it may be.
The team that Dombrowski inherited has not been easy to change; of last year’s team, the only players to depart as free agents were Rich Hill and Craig Breslow, and while the former’s late-season flash of brilliance may be missed, the latter was unlikely to have a pronounced role. A few days after those players elected free agency, the Red Sox outrighted Alexi Ogando and Allen Craig and his now-onerous contract to the minors, and to this point, those four players and Ryan Cook (lost on waivers) are the only ones from the 2015 major league picture who may not be among the rows of smiling faces in the 2016 team photo.
Dombrowski has managed to put his stamp on this team already, but what he hasn’t done is violently shake up the roster.
Fully purged of major league Craigs, the front office made its first major move of the offseason in picking up a new one. The addition of Craig Kimbrel almost definitely made the bullpen better, but also made it more difficult to upgrade. The REd Sox hope to enjoy more complete years from the better-utilized Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, and Joe Kelly is too good to not gamble on, especially in light of potential need in the bullpen. Tommy Layne and Steven Wright both have something to offer if used in their optimal roles, and both are out of options. Robbie Ross may be the most spare of spare bullpen parts, and yet after Uehara, his may have been the steadiest of hands in the bullpen last season.
Where position players have those pesky positions to worry about, one can always upgrade a starting rotation with an ace. But while the addition of David Price may or may not fix the rotation, it does do to the starting crew what the Kimbrel pickup does to the bullpen; further changes to the rotation may be difficult to the point of leaving value on the table. It may be that no team would value Clay Buchholz as highly as do the Red Sox, and if you’re looking for someone to bet against Rick Porcello, don’t look at Dombrowski. Trading Eduardo Rodriguez would threaten to make this team the post-dynasty Yankees, and while the bulk innings of decent quality contributed by Wade Miley are why he’s valuable, they also make him something of an upgrade bottleneck.
Dombrowski has managed to put his stamp on this team already, but what he hasn’t done is violence to the roster. No valuable player has been cut, no useful but below-average player marginalized. He does have a mandate for change, though, and may yet declare some contract money a sunk cost, or some decent player not good enough to worry about losing. If the pitching staff is all but calcified–and that’s not a given–change may be coming on the position player side of things.
Small problem: every position player currently slated for a starting role is either a Red Sox institution, within a year and a half of signing a long-term deal, or part of the team’s young core. We could quibble about whether Jackie Bradley, Jr. fits in that last category, but with a solid platoon match in Chris Young on board, Bradley wouldn’t be an easy subtraction either.
The “backup plan” part of the offseason tends to come later in the offseason than December, and so even though the Red Sox are likely to pick around for rehabbing pitchers and journeymen outfielders like the rest of the sport, that’s not what we’re likely to see out of the team in Nashville. None of us know what the Red Sox know, and we may not agree with their priorities even if we knew them and had the same information. But ask yourself: if you were tasked with re-making the Red Sox into a contender and agreed there were no more roster holes to fill, what would you be looking to do at the Winter Meetings?
The Red Sox may have all manner of conversations this week, but Hanley Ramirez may dominate the team’s end of the rumor mill.
Chances are you’d wish you could snap your fingers and make the contracts of Pablo Sandoval and/or Hanley Ramirez disappear. And since the former would be about as easy to move as Benjie Molina standing between a runner and home plate, you’d probably focus your energy on trying to move Ramirez. You wouldn’t be playing with house money anymore, but you would be playing with house time; the Red Sox don’t need to do anything this week. Reality is setting in around the game right now — a deal like the Great Dodgers Contract Purge is not likely to happen, but depending on what happens this week, the Red Sox could end up in the right place at the right time by keeping their fingers on the pulse of possible Ramirez destinations.
Whether it’s in the rotation, bullpen or on the position player side, at this point the Red Sox would need to subtract to accommodate more additions, although the order of those don’t necessarily matter and Boston’s back-end starters could generate a ton of interest this week in a new spending climate they helped create. The Red Sox may have all manner of conversations this week, but Hanley Ramirez should dominate the team’s end of the rumor mill. What would that look like, you ask? Well, about that…
With no uber-prospect knocking on the door for playing time at first base, the Red Sox have almost nothing to lose by trying Han-Ram there to start the season. All it has to be is better than awful; with David Ortiz out of the picture after the 2016 season, a worst case scenario has Ramirez playing out the last two years of his contract as a potentially overpaid but eminently useful DH. That could make for an uncomfortable 2016, but it does mean that the Red Sox won’t just cut Ramirez. Dump in a trade that requires eating a ton of money, sure, but not cut.
Just as Ramirez’s defensive shortcomings and positional mystery make him a wild card for Boston, they make him very difficult to move. His contract is so big that if he’s traded somewhere to be a first baseman, that team is betting on him being a first baseman; an expensive backup option is as unlikely as Ramirez displacing a young, established starter. What the Red Sox are looking for in sizing up potential trade partners, then, are three things: 1) teams that can play Ramirez at DH now, 2) teams with a hole at first base who are also a little desperate; or 3) teams who currently have a plan in place for first base, but that can move that player somewhere else on the diamond (probably outfield). All three kinds of teams would be better trade matches if they had a bad contract or two of their own. Sure, there could be some team out there willing to give Ramirez another shot to play elsewhere in the infield (third base, if anything), but that’s a matter of lines of communication, not of advancing talks.
With the acknowledgement that in trade talks, any team can shut things down unilaterally, some fits we might hear:
- Baltimore Orioles. When Nick Cafardo reported at the end of last month that the Red Sox were looking to move Ramirez, he followed that with this: “The Mariners, Orioles, and Angels seem to be the targets, and all three make sense.” It’s not clear to me whether that’s part of what Cafardo was reporting, or whether that was just his opinion, but all three teams are probably priorities if the Red Sox are actively looking for fits. The awkward part of this math is that the Red Sox might look at Chris Davis if they did move Ramirez — but the Orioles are unlikely to trade for Ramirez unless Davis is already off the board. Mark Trumbo is actually a fine first baseman, which would slot Ramirez nicely at DH — and although the Orioles dealt with a little catcher logjam by trading Steve Clevenger for Trumbo, they may have been a little surprised when Matt Wieters accepted their qualifying offer. Prospect Chance Sisco may be two years away from contributing for Baltimore, and catchers that far from the majors are anything but sure things. Although it would involve taking on two players with current question marks at once, a deal that sent both Ramirez and Christian Vazquez to the Orioles could start a conversation, with Wieters sharing time with Blake Swihart and Ortiz in Boston for 2016.
- Seattle Mariners. I don’t see how the Angels fit in trade; C.J. Cron may be replaceable at DH, but Albert Pujols may need that spot — and since the team doesn’t have a similar contract to send back. acquiring Ramirez in a salary dump seems like a very unlikely way for new GM Billy Eppler to put his first stamp on the team. While Trumbo’s first team may not be a fit, though, his third might be as promising a destination for Ramirez as his fourth. The conversation would almost definitely be short; if we hear rumors of talks and a declaration from Jerry Dipoto that he’s not interested, that might be the kiss of death for Boston’s trade chances. Why? Because as Cafardo reported or observed, the team actually does make sense, and so Dipoto passing might be read as acting from a position of better-than-market knowledge about Ramirez. The Trumbo swap means that some mix of Jesus Montero, Seth Smith and Shawn O’Malley may cover most of the 1B/DH playing time, and there’s enough flexibility there for Ramirez to fit in comfortably in some way. The years involved may end up being the problem, if Dipoto is actually open to the idea: the DH spot may be needed for Nelson Cruz not too far down the line.
- Toronto Blue Jays. If one division rival makes sense, why not another? The Blue Jays had success veering wildly toward offense, and yet if Jose Bautista is in right field and Edwin Encarnacion is at first, there’s playing time available at DH with Ramirez almost definitely an upgrade over Justin Smoak. Dombrowski’s Canadian counterpart may prefer to keep DH open for regular rest for Bautista, Encarnacion and especially Troy Tulowitzki, but Mark Shapiro would probably listen — and if the talks expanded to include Wade Miley, R.A. Dickey and a prospect or two, they might gain some traction. Heck, you might even fit Alexi Ogando into a swap.
- Atlanta Braves. Hear me out. No, the team doesn’t have a DH slot to use, and no, they aren’t looking to move Freddie Freeman. What they do have, though, is a need for some kind of outfield bopper, a willingness to make big changes and a significant commitment to Hector Olivera — with a lot of uncertainty about whether Olivera can actually play in the outfield. If the Red Sox really do eat a ton of the money owed Ramirez, the Braves have little to lose. And while the Braves did get some salary relief in taking on the puzzling Olivera, they can trade that contract at sticker price. Characterize it as unlikely, but possible — even though coming across a roster with Ramirez, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher on it would be like coming across a bunch of furniture you left next to your apartment building dumpster a few months earlier.
- Miami Marlins. Admit it, trading Bad Hanley to the Marlins would feel at least as good as trading Good Hanley felt bad. If a deal were pitched to Jeffrey Loria as some kind of expanded roster sharing, maybe he bites? And while the team wants what seems like an unrealistic return for Martin Prado, the 11,000,000 dollars remaining on the Prado contract seem to form the makings of a promising trade scenario. The Marlins could be willing to try Ramirez at third with Prado gone, and if that didn’t work — or if they didn’t want to try — Ramirez makes for a nice platoon pairing with first baseman Justin Bour. This would be a salary dump kind of move, but adding Prado to uber-utilityman Brock Holt would allow the Red Sox to break camp with just four true outfielders, providing insurance for a Travis Shaw experiment and potentially enabling the team to carry all three of Blake Swihart, Ryan Hanigan and Christian Vazquez.
- San Diego Padres. Reports are that the team would be willing to move James Shields, but that they don’t want to eat money, and that they’d like a middle infielder back in return. That we’re hearing that Shields is available is some indication that he’s really available. And had Shields pitched about as well as expected in 2016, his contract would still be effectively a liability, with only his older seasons left on his deal and with the winner’s curse of the Padres paying more for him than anyone (including the Red Sox) were willing to pay a year ago. Sure, they could get an infielder back without kicking in Shields money — if they took another contract back. And while the optics of having two diminished recent Dodgers in the lineup may be a hard sell in San Diego, there’s room here for a match — and with Yonder Alonso traded to Oakland for Drew Pomeranz, default first baseman Wil Myers could slot back into the outfield. Deven Merrero would seem like a small price to pay to swap Ramirez for Shields, even if the Red Sox had to eat $30M of the $68M owed Ramirez while picking up the Shields tab. Wade Miley might also be a candidate to be included in that kind of deal, although it would change the dollars involved — and if the Red Sox trade Miley first, Shields/Ramirez becomes a lot more interesting.
This week should be as fun a Winter Meetings period as it ever is, but if your heart is with the Red Sox, there’s really no anxiety factor — the team can only make a strong offseason stronger, and there’s no way for failure to act to be a failure. We’ve only begun to see Dave Dombrowski remake the roster, with only the easiest parts out of the way. Regardless of the circumstances and whether or not it’s through one of the matches above, trading Hanley Ramirez would pave the way for even more changes — and it may be the biggest possible win the front office could pull off this week.
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