Red Sox turning point was releasing first baseman/DH Hanley Ramirez

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 1: Hanley Ramirez #13 of the Boston Red Sox looks on during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park on August 1, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 1: Hanley Ramirez #13 of the Boston Red Sox looks on during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park on August 1, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The surprising release of veteran Hanley Ramirez back in May turned out to be a turning point for a championship run by the Boston Red Sox.

In the aftermath of celebrating the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, one question still lingers. Does Hanley Ramirez get a ring?

We can’t say that Hanley didn’t contribute toward the franchise record 108-win regular season. His walk-off base hit in the home opener gave the Red Sox their first win at Fenway Park this year. Ramirez was one of the team’s most productive players through the month of April when he hit .341 with a .906 OPS. Stating that Ramirez doesn’t deserve some credit for this season would be inaccurate yet it’s also fair to say that his unexpected release was a pivotal turning point for the ball club.

A scorching start to the season quickly faded once the calendar flipped to May. Ramirez hit .163 with a .500 OPS in 19 games that month. He went without a hit in his last five games with the team and looked lost at the plate. Every at-bat seemed to end with a strikeout or with Ramirez rolling over on a pitch that resulted in a ground out to an infielder.

The Red Sox made the surprising decision to release Ramirez on May 25. They led the New York Yankees by 1.5 games at the time. Boston then ripped off wins in five of their next six games and nine of their next 12. By the All-Star break, they would extend their lead in the AL East to 4.5 games and they never looked back on their way to cruising to a third consecutive division title.

Kicking Hanley to the curb doesn’t entirely explain why the Red Sox pulled away from their competition but it created a domino effect that significantly contributed to the team’s success.

Ramirez was struggling at the time of his release. Maybe he would have turned things around to start hitting the way he did early in the season, maybe not. Mitch Moreland‘s strong start to the season warranted more playing time and manager Alex Cora was rightfully concerned about how Ramirez might react if that came at his expense. Limiting Hanley’s playing time would hinder his chances of cashing in on the $22 million option that vested only if he reached 497 plate appearances so he obviously wouldn’t have been thrilled taking a backup role.

Moreland’s bat cooled off but he still finished with a .245/.325/.433 slash line that represents an improvement over what Ramirez produced in three of his four seasons with the Red Sox. Moreland was also a finalist for the Gold Glove, which we can safely say Ramirez would not have been in the discussion for.

Removing Ramirez from the roster also opened up the need for another right-handed bat to platoon with Moreland at first base, leading to the mid-season trade with the Toronto Blue Jays for Steve Pearce. The unheralded deal proved vital to the team’s success.

Pearce hit .279 with a .901 OPS in 50 games with the Red Sox down the stretch. The lefty masher gave a significant boost to a lineup that struggled with southpaws, hitting .304 with a .959 OPS in 102 at-bats against left-handed pitching with Boston.

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While he produced solid numbers in the regular season, the playoffs were when Pearce really shined. He hit .289/.426/.658 with four home runs and 11 RBI in 13 postseason games. That included a .333/.500/1.167 line in the World Series. Pearce blasted a game-tying home run in the eighth inning of Game 4 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and helped seal the series with a two-homer performance in the decisive Game 5 to earn World Series MVP honors.

It’s certainly possible that Ramirez could have turned things around if given the chance yet it’s hard to imagine at this stage of his career that he would have made the impact Pearce did. If Hanley were still hanging around, not only does the more valuable Moreland receive less playing time, Boston would not have been inclined to trade for Pearce.

Do the Red Sox win the World Series without Pearce? Are they able to build the chemistry that helped this team band together for a championship run with a disgruntled Ramirez poisoning the clubhouse? These are questions we probably don’t want to know the answer to. We know how it panned out without Ramirez and couldn’t have asked for a better outcome than that.

It’s telling that another team didn’t scoop up Ramirez after his release. The 34-year old seemed to have enough left in the tank to interest another contender as a low-cost veteran bat off the bench yet he was content to sit home and cash his paychecks. If he wasn’t eager to find another potential winning situation elsewhere it’s hard to envision him being part of the winning environment here in Boston.

Looking beyond 2018, Ramirez’ bloated salary officially comes off their books to free up room in the budget. That $22 million owed to Ramirez if he were around long enough for the option to vest can now be spread around to retaining their other free agents or attributed to the expected raises for their arbitration-eligible players.

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Nothing ever goes right 100 percent of the time but it sure seemed like it did for the Red Sox during this historic championship run. Seemingly every decision made by Cora or the front office worked out. In a season loaded with wise choices, the most important one may have been rectifying one of the franchise’s biggest blunders when they signed Ramirez in free agency four years ago.