Why the Red Sox free agent signings were smart


Four years and $88 million to Hanley Ramirez with a vesting option for a fifth year valued at $22 million if he reaches 1050 plate appearances between 2017-2018 (substantial protection given that he has not compiled 1050 plate appearances in any two year stretch of his career since 2009 and 2010), and five years and $95 million to Pablo Sandoval with a team option for a sixth year at $17 million, with a $5 million buyout (an avenue that would seem quite likely at this point in time).

Forgive me if I lost any of you before I got to the actual blog, as boring as contract terms are, they are key to understanding how the Red Sox were able to create some creative protection against giving the two players the deals they actually wanted. While Hanley’s appears significantly more team friendly at this point, it is my opinion that ultimately neither deal will hinder the team’s ability to maintain a competitive roster by the time the players are midway through their contracts, and have started to see their production wane.

There are a couple of reasons for optimism. The Hanley deal in particular looks exactly like the deal the Red Sox wanted; some conservative projections had Hanley in the 5 years for $110 million (which is technically what he got until you discount the unlikeliness that the fifth year option vests), and some that incorporated a little more market inflation went all the way up to six years and $132 million. I saw a six year $120 million deal being a reasonable middle ground, so naturally I am somewhat astonished by the final numbers.

Oct 3, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez (13) reacts after scoring a run in the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in game one of the 2014 NLDS playoff baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

As for Sandoval’s that number is almost exactly what everyone expected him to get BUT, the Red Sox were able to avoid their bidding war with the Giants and Padres (the latter of whom reportedly topped the Red Sox offer, and the former willing to top our offer) by offering him that sixth year option that will likely just turn the deal into the five years for $100 million that seemed like a possibility after tearing through postseason pitching en route to San Francisco’s third World Series victory since 2010.

Even if you still think the team overpaid, there are a few reasons to justify them spending big money on these two players. 2014 marked a downward spiral in offensive output after injuries hindered key offensive pieces Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. But to anyone who was subjecting to watching the on field product last year, a couple of glaring weaknesses could be observed. The first was a tremendous power outage: their .369 SLG percentage in 2014 ranked second to last in the American League.

Beyond the power gap, the team was also held back by inadequate production from the left side of the plate and from the third base position. The only player with more than 500 plate appearances from the left side of the plate was David Ortiz. The team was really hurt by the underperformance of expected regulars AJ Pierzynski, Stephen Drew, and Jackie Bradley Jr. At 3B, the team’s leading hitter was Brock Holt who hit .219 after the All Star Break. Beyond Holt, the only player who reached even 200 plate appearances was Will Middlebrooks and his .191 AVG.

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Finally, the team experienced a polar shift in their production with RISP. Where the 2013 squad developed a notoriety for coming up big in clutch situations, the 2014 crew was horrible in this regard. Their leading hitter in this category was Yoenis Cespedes, who was not even acquired until the July 31st trade deadline with a .344 AVG, the next regular being David Ortiz who hit .285 and Brock Holt hit .253, while Pedroia, Napoli, Bradley, Pierzynski/Ross, and Drew all hit below .250 and Xander Bogaerts struggled more than anyone hitting a putrid .153 with men at 2nd and 3rd.

Now lets take a look at how they plan to fix the problem, starting with addressing the need for power: now Pablo Sandoval is not what can be considered a conventional power hitter. Last season he hit 16 HRs over a full season, the year before he hit just 14. But he has flashed power hitting ability, with 25 dingers as a 22 year old in 2009, and 22 as a 24 year old in 2011, and he has been stuck in the pitcher friendly AT&T Park for the entirety of his career. As a productive opposite field hitter, having the Green Monster should create plenty of doubles batting from the left side of the plate at Fenway.

Oct 29, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval (bottom) celebrates with teammates after catching a pop out for the final out of game seven of the 2014 World Series against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Ramirez is a similar player, although he too has shown great power potential and has yet to play in a park as hitter friendly as he will in Boston. Taking into account his career numbers he has averaged 25 HRs a year per 162 games, but it is not reasonable to expect that kind of strength on the downside of his career, nor has he ever shown an ability to stay on the field for a full season throughout his career. But would it be unreasonable to expect 30-35 HRs next year between both he and Sandoval? Not in this writer’s opinion. And as we saw in 2013, having a bunch of players who can hit 10-20 HRs can be just as effective as 2-3 guys hitting 20-30.

Sandoval too, will improve the production from the left side of the plate, and both he and Ramirez figure to see time at the hot corner and provide production far beyond this year’s meager output. If Mike Napoli continues to struggle with injuries, Hanley can play 3B, Pablo 1B, and Nava can step into LF off the bench to add another lefty bat. The 2015 roster will afford Manager John Farrell a similar level of flexibility as in 2013, with both Nava and either Victorino or stud prospect Mookie Bench offering depth, along with 2013 MVP candidate Allan Craig, who will hopefully bounce back from an awful 2014.

But perhaps the greatest source of 2015 optimism? A potential return to the clutch hitting that made 2013 so exciting. Both of these players showed a terrific propensity for clutch hitting last season. Ramirez hit .321 with runners in scoring position, and .348 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Sandoval hit .291 with RISP, and .293 with RISP and two outs, and went on an Ortiz esque rampage in the 2014 postseason with six homers and a .344 batting average.

Ben Cherington and his front office took a look at his system and realized that they didn’t have the players to internally fill these needs and deficiencies, this year or in the coming years. He elected to go out and spend on two players who fill these roles spectacularly and signed them at or below market value, and did not exceed 5 years, nor did he extend either player past his age 35 season (with the assumption that Hanley’s player option does not vest). The Red Sox have incredible payroll flexibility, and a plethora of promising young bats who look to assume positions in the lineup in the coming years at a very low cost.

This was an educated gamble, and one with plenty of contingency in place should things go wrong, and Red Sox fans should be excited for this season, and the coming years about their new look offense. Now if we can just find some pitching…