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.
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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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