Wait … where’d Hanley go?
If you’re a sports fan who put baseball on the back-burner while immersing yourself in the Celtics’ playoff run, I imagine it would be rather puzzling to turn back to the Red Sox only to realize they recently designated for assignment their No. 3 hitter in order to keep a 26-year-old quasi-catcher who had played 42 major league games over the past three seasons.
Of course, the vast majority of Boston fans became immediately aware of the decision to DFA Hanley Ramirez when colleague Alex Speier broke the news last Friday. Five days later, it still resonates, and in some ways still bewilders.
The instant reaction to the move was shock. Ramirez had a fine April, a longstanding reputation as a dangerous hitter, an outwardly upbeat persona, and did I mention he usually hit third on a team that leads the majors in runs scored?
Players of such stature aren’t unceremoniously dumped in May, especially by teams on a 112-win pace through a third of the season. The last time I was as surprised by an in-season move, Nomar Garciaparra became a Cub.
It was less shocking in a purely fiscal sense. Ramirez’s $22 million option for 2019 vested if he reached 497 at-bats this season. The Red Sox were more likely to lure Jack Clark out of retirement than bring back the 33-year-old Ramirez at that rate to be their designated hitter next season.
And the long-term baseball reasons make sense. Keeping Blake Swihart – that quasi-catcher who remains a promising prospect despite borderline malpractice by the organization in how it handled his development – is a good thing, despite his injuries and uneven performance in recent years. It would have been foolish to lose a player ranked the game’s 17th-best prospect by Baseball America three years ago to a roster crunch.
Were there other options besides parting with Ramirez? Well, I can’t be the only one beginning to believe that Brock Holt will somehow still be on this roster when Mookie Betts is drafting his Hall of Fame speech. But at least he’s adequate insurance in case Dustin Pedroia and Eduardo Nunez don’t have two good knees between them come August. Holt is kind of necessary right now.
Ramirez’s future will become clearer in a couple of days when he clears waivers. He should have a few American League suitors since the Red Sox are footing the bill for the rest of his ’18 salary. I’m skeptical that he will end up in the lineup of a team that the Red Sox will encounter in the postseason – the Yankees and Astros certainly don’t need him.
But he is a hitter of compelling talent, and one who, somewhat surprisingly, has been at his best in big moments. Ramirez is a ghost capable of haunting, and for all of the justifications for cutting ties now, I do think the possibility of missing his bat down the road is a legitimate one.
Mitch Moreland is having a spectacular season, with a 1.027 OPS so far. Alex Cora wanted to play him more. But Moreland is a .255 career hitter who has had an OPS over .800 once in the last seven seasons. He’s the new Rico Brogna. I’m not sure playing Moreland more is going to yield anything more than adequate results.
Ramirez’s time here was mostly disappointing. He was often injured, sometimes indifferent, and aggravatingly ineffective even when he was healthy, at least compared to what he was supposed to be.
But that 2016 season, especially the second half? Man, was that some fun. Ramirez finished the year with 30 homers and 111 RBIs, with 22 of those homers coming in 64 games after the All-Star break. That guy could put an offense on his shoulders. It’s not out of the question that he does it again. You know he’ll be motivated to prove the Red Sox wrong. Mark it down: He still has a few home runs to come at Fenway this year.
I’ll cop to being something of a Hanley apologist over the years. I loved watching him play at Portland in 2005-06 when he was rocketing up the Red Sox farm system and the prospect lists. He was an enigma even then – he had some minor behavioral issues in the low minors, such as cussing out a coach and making an obscene gesture at fans, which got him a suspension in ’03. When he was a Sea Dog, his statistics weren’t spectacular, but damned if he didn’t do something electrifying every single time you saw him. He was easy to forgive.
While Ramirez never won a World Series with the Red Sox, he did help them win one. He was the centerpiece in the deal with the Marlins before the 2006 season for future postseason heroes Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Somewhere out there in a parallel universe, Ramirez spent his whole career in Boston, and the post-Nomar shortstop blues never happened.
Of course, imagine how crazy he would have driven us in tandem with Manny. It would have been exasperating and exhilarating at once. Mostly exasperating, just like his return engagement the last three-plus years. But those exhilarating times, as fleeting as they were, sure were fun.
I don’t know if the Red Sox are better off without Ramirez. The final two-thirds of the season will provide that answer. But I do know this: They’re not quite as interesting. For better or worse, you notice when he’s not around.