Red Sox

Drellich: Saying goodbye to Hanley Ramirez a gamble for win-now Red Sox

Drellich: Saying goodbye to Hanley Ramirez a gamble for win-now Red Sox

BOSTON — The win-now Red Sox just gambled on the present for certainty in the future. 

For all the reasons to be surprised about the end of Hanley Ramirez’s time in Boston, a tug of war between the future and the present unfolding in the middle of an excellent Red Sox season is most notable.

Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and his big-market team did not build their reputations on moves that could detract from a contender. They certainly do not advertise such possibilities in season-ticket brochures. 

But moving on from Ramirez, who was surprised to learn Friday morning he was designated for assignment to make room for the return of Dustin Pedroia, could indeed lessen the team’s chances in 2018. The gain: a likely $22 million savings in 2019, based on a vesting option that would have kicked in with a reasonable amount of playing time this season.

On the other hand, the Sox could be just fine without Ramirez, who is 34 and has six home runs, a .254 average, .313 on-base percentage and .395 slugging percentage. The Sox believe that increased playing time for Mitch Moreland (.311, seven homers, 1.001 OPS) will likely show a player that is more capable than Ramirez at present.

But the gamble nonetheless exists and it’s surprising the Sox are taking it as they sit neck-and-neck with the Yankees. A team with both Moreland and Ramirez is more potent, or at least deeper, than one carrying only Moreland. If Ramirez rebounds with another team and goes on a tear the rest of the way, well, the Sox have to hope they’re not lacking for hitting in a race against the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

As a player designated for assignment, Ramirez can be traded, claimed off waivers or released within seven days. But because of that vesting option, he’s very unlikely to be traded or claimed off waivers. No team wants that money looming over them. 

Instead, you can expect Ramirez to be released. At that point, he will likely sign a new contract with another team, and his vesting option will be a thing of the past. His new team will pay him the league minimum, the Sox will pay him the remainder of the $22.75 million salary they owed him (less the money his new team is paying him), and he'll become a free agent after this year.

The Red Sox did not approach Ramirez about voiding that 2019 vesting option to stay in a Sox uniform, a source with knowledge of the situation said. Voiding the option would have been exceptional, if not impossible, because the Players Association guards the value of contracts very closely. (The only way it might have been theoretically viable is if Ramirez were compensated for giving up the option.)

At the end of the day, the Sox made a simple (but complicated) calculation: Ramirez’s 2019 vesting option for $22 million that kicks in with 497 plate appearances this season did not make it worth seeing how much Ramirez could help the 2018 Sox. Ramirez needs 302 more plate appearances. 

Blake Swihart isn't playing, but if the Sox finally decide to use him, they have a player who has years of cost certainty. He was the easiest player to speculate would be on his way out the door when Pedroia returned. But, in the same way getting rid of Ramirez makes sense financially, so too does retaining Swihart.

It’s about roster flexibility, it’s about money, it’s about profit — they're all branches of the same tree. The Red Sox have baseball’s highest payroll at the moment. The Sox, relative to other teams, have not been cheap. Their costs are only going to rise as players receive arbitration raises and hit free agency. Craig Kimbrel is in the final year of his contract this season.

But this move nonetheless centers on money. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the Sox avoided adding a slugger in 2017 for one reason only: payroll. They stayed under the luxury tax, passed on free-agent option Edwin Encarnacion heading into the season, and suffered for it.

The Sox are gambling they won't look back on Ramirez's 2018 season with any similar regrets.

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Drellich: What makes a playoff bullpen, in personnel and in usage?

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Drellich: What makes a playoff bullpen, in personnel and in usage?

The greatest impact Alex Cora and Dave Dombrowski can have from here on out lies in the same area: the bullpen.

“I think that’s the toughest part of the game,” Cora said. “The matchups and where to go. One thing for sure that we feel very strong about it, the whole platoon thing doesn’t matter, if you get people out, you get people out.”

Unless, perhaps, it’s October.

As successful as the Sox pen has been in a league of great disparity, Dombrowski and Cora have to consider how their relievers will look against their likely playoff opponents. No element of a baseball team's roster — the rotation, lineup, bullpen and bench — takes on a more disparate look in October than the relievers. A starter or two inevitably contribute in relief, and usage increases, and a regular-season reliever or two becomes a spectator.

“Somebody that was in the mix the whole time, he’s out of the roster,” Cora said. “And it’s very different in a sense. But you still need your guys, like here, little by little, we do feel very comfortable with the [progression in the] seventh, eighth, ninth.”

Relievers are already on the move, with Kelvin Herrera heading from the Royals to the Nats on Monday. But what should be sought in a quote-unquote playoff bullpen? What makes a good one, in both a GM's construction and a manager's usage?

“Players that have the heartbeat to handle the emotion of the game is one criteria that you look for,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Obviously, elite stuff is always important. Execution when the game is on the line is key. But I think the slower heartbeats, in addition to the talent, is something that I noticed last season that we excelled at, and that other teams that have good bullpens [did as well].

“You look at what the Dodgers bullpen did leading into the World Series. You look at what the really good teams in the past [were able to do], the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants: being able to handle the critical moments and apply your elite stuff at that time is really good."

There seems to be no limit to the number of power arms a team can, or perhaps must, amass. One established, elite reliever, i.e. Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen, doesn’t seem to be fearsome anymore without serious backup. 

In the era of swing-and-miss, the Yankees standalone with a pen averaging 12.02 strikeouts per nine innings. The Astros are second at 10.75 per nine, and the Sox fifth at 9.73. But, those figures include people who won’t be major postseason contributors and include competition that is not postseason caliber.

Power alone, though, is not enough. 

“You need kind of an answer to everything,” Hinch said. “You need someone that can match up with lefties, someone that can match up with righties. That doesn’t always mean handedness has to equal that.

“In a perfect world, there’s going to be swings that don’t handle depth breaking balls. There’s going to be swings that don’t handle hard, lateral breaking balls, whether it’s a guy with a changeup — if you have a diverse set of relievers that can be matched up appropriately, it can be a great advantage in the bullpen.”

Matchups matter, but not in the conventional way, and that's true in the regular season as well.

"The days of 4-for-10 against this guy, they’re gone," Cora said. "It’s too small.”

The Red Sox entered the day off Monday with the sixth-best bullpen ERA in the majors. They’ve been successful preventing runners they’re handed by others from scoring as well, with the 11th lowest percentage of inherited runners scored. 

Dombrowski had a difficult time building bullpens in his years in Detroit. But the Sox had the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors in 2017. Now, despite Carson Smith’s season-ending shoulder injury and the delay in Tyler Thornburg’s return, the team is thriving again in late innings. 

But Hinch’s general point about style is one to consider with the Sox. Over the winter, Dombrowski noted the difference in looks that Smith provided in contrast to his other right-handers. Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree are all high-velocity pitchers with strong breaking balls. Smith relied on a sinker as well as a slider.

This group might be able to carry the Sox to a third consecutive division title without any help. Still, variety may be lacking.

Fortunately, the postseason process naturally provides some help. When Hinch was asked what makes a good playoff bullpen, he cracked a joke.

“Starters,” he said.

The strength of the Sox starters could be a boost to the Sox pen in a layered way. Eduardo Rodriguez’s changeup or Steven Wright’s knuckler can create a change of pace.

But the starter craze can also go too far. Cora thought it did last October.

Had the Sox come back to win the Division Series against the Astros, the turning point would have been remembered as the third inning of Game 4.

Houston starter Brad Peacock struck out the first two he faced in the frame at Fenway Park. Consecutive hits cut the Astros’ lead to 3-1. Hinch, with Cora as bench coach, played the traditional matchup with Rafael Devers. Peacock was out, southpaw Francisco Liriano was in, and he was immediately greeted by a go-ahead home run.

“We got caught up last year in certain games that probably...we talked about it, we pulled the trigger too quick on Brad in Game 3,” Cora said. “Because it was the playoffs and we went with Liriano, who was throwing the ball well, and he gives up the home run.”

It was pointed out to Cora that most of the time, Liriano probably gets the job done, that the move wasn't so bad. (Although Devers fared extraordinarily well against southpaw pitching in 2017.)

“But you know what I mean? Like, we felt that way,” Cora said. "Kind of like, we trust these guys throughout the season [to get out of a jam as starters]...We talk about it. But maybe we talk about it because he gave it up."

It's only June, but the time for the Sox to consider October pen plans is now, at least in terms of ideal personnel and a variety of looks.

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Rosenthal: Red Sox and Orioles 'do not match up' on Machado trade

Rosenthal: Red Sox and Orioles 'do not match up' on Machado trade

As quickly as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and FOX Sports' MLB telecasts heated up the Manny Machado-to-the Red Sox rumors last week, his latest reporting does a lot to dispel them.

In a notes column published Monday (subscription required), Rosenthal reports that the Red Sox have contacted the Orioles about the would-be-free-agent infielder, who is thought to be the prize of the July 31 trade deadline, but Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski thinks the teams "likely do not match up on a trade at this time," according to a source.

In other words, the Red Sox really don't have the top minor league prospects the O's would be looking for in a Machado deal. The Sox farm system is ranked 24th in MLB by Baseball America and top hitter Michael Chavis was just suspended for 80-games for PED usage and top pitcher Jay Groome just had Tommy John surgery.

As for including 21-year-old Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers in a Machado deal, as NBC Sports Boston Red Sox Insider Evan Drellich wrote last week, "sources with knowledge of the Red Sox thinking were dismissive of the idea the Sox would move Devers."


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