The Red Sox’ first base picture is unsettled. The Cubs’ is not.
In a Q&A with Peter Abraham, new Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said he “would think” Hanley Ramirez will be the first baseman next year, but that he wasn’t prepared to make any kind of declaration with certainty, noting that he’d like to see Ramirez play first base. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to see him hit, either, given that Ramirez is hitting .249 with a .291 OBP and .426 slugging mark, a far cry from his career .296/.367/.494 line.
This has been a rough year for Red Sox first basemen. The recent power show from Travis Shaw has helped the overall numbers to improve, but Sox first basemen rank 29th in the majors in average (.217), 22nd in OBP (.307), and 21st in slugging (.417), making first an unquestionable weakness on the year.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Anthony Rizzo mashed his 30th homer of the season, a laser into the right field seats, improving his season line to .278/.387/.524. It would appear that, in his age 25 season (Rizzo turned 26 in August), Rizzo has established a performance baseline, given that in 2014, he hit 32 homers with a .286/.386/.527 line. Rizzo is now the 56th player in big league history (and the 12th active player) with multiple 30-homer seasons through his age 25 season. Of the 44 players in that group who have retired, the average career yielded 412 homers. (Here is the list.)
All of that makes it a fascinating exercise to unspool one of the most interesting transactional threads in recent Red Sox history. What would have happened if, instead of trading Rizzo to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez (as the secondary piece of the three-prospect deal, with righthander Casey Kelly representing the key component of the trade and Reymond Fuentes also getting shipped to San Diego), the Red Sox had kept him?
Rizzo wasn’t ready to contribute as a big league regular in 2011. But the Red Sox wouldn’t have needed him in the big leagues at that time. He certainly was eager to continue his development with the Sox at that time.
“Getting traded from the Red Sox to the Padres, it kind of crushed me a little bit,” Rizzo, a 2007 sixth-rounder, recalled at the All-Star Game. “I made so many friends there. They developed me.”
In 2011, the Sox had Kevin Youkilis to man one of the corners. In the absence of Gonzalez, the team could have re-signed Adrian Beltre – a player who ranks fifth in the majors with 30.0 Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball-Reference.com) and has a .307/.355/.511 line with 132 homers since he signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Rangers (which included a potentially voidable sixth year at $96 million) that offseason.
Would the Sox have been better off with Beltre, Rizzo, Kelly, and Fuentes? The answer seems obvious enough, though of course, revisionist history is imperfect. After all, without Gonzalez (who, in fairness, had a tremendous 2011 season and who has posted a .298/.358/.490 line since 2011 with 121 homers, good for the 17th best WAR in baseball among position players in that time), the Sox presumably wouldn’t have had the asset that would have motivated the Dodgers to assume the contracts of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett.
That quarter-billion dollar reprieve permitted the Sox the flexibility to enact their magical offseason of 2012-13 that resulted in a championship in 2013. It’s natural to imagine that the Sox would have been well-positioned for championship runs with Rizzo, but if 2013 showed anything, it’s that the alchemy of a championship team works in mysterious ways. It’s a very dangerous thing to ignore the bird in hand of a single title.
To ignore what happened in favor of what could have been is, in some ways, an exercise in greed. While on paper, a Rizzo/Beltre tandem would have given the Sox a greater shot at multiple titles, but that ignores the possibility that had the Sox not traded for Gonzalez, there’s a chance that they never would have won a single championship during a Rizzo/Beltre run.
As for Rizzo, it’s not clear that he would have been ready to contribute at a championship level in 2013 – a year when he hit .233/.323/.419 with 23 homers for the Cubs. Perhaps the Sox still would have needed a Mike Napoli to buy time for Rizzo’s development, but then, without the big league equity built by letting Rizzo endure his ups and downs of 2013, perhaps he wouldn’t have emerged as a star in 2014. Then again, maybe he would have, giving the Sox a standout corner pairing of Beltre and Rizzo.
Adding to the complexity of the exercise: If the Sox had re-signed Beltre, they wouldn’t have gotten their two compensatory draft picks from the Rangers, which turned into Blake Swihart and Jackie Bradley Jr. But in Kelly and Fuentes, they would have had more prospect assets, and they also might have been positioned to trade Will Middlebrooks at a value high-point given that he would have been blocked by Beltre.
So: It’s impossible to say what would have happened had the Sox never traded Rizzo. But it is easy to say with certainty what Rizzo has become: A star with a chance to be a middle-of-the-order linchpin for years to come.
Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune writes of Rizzo’s dreams of leading the Cubs – who acquired him from the Padres after the 2011 season – to baseball’s promised land.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.