On the one hand, the idea that David Ortiz might retire after the coming season shouldn’t come as a shock. Ortiz recognized prior to the 2015 season that retirement was no longer an idea that he could ignore completely.
Still, with the report by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports that Ortiz plans to retire after the 2016 season, there’s a startling reality that the Red Sox must confront: Life after David Ortiz. It’s something that the team had considered in the past, but as former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington noted prior to the season, “Until it’s upon us, we won’t act upon it. But of course you’ve got to think about it.”
Now, if indeed Ortiz is set to announce that he’ll ride off into the sunset after the 2016 season, he’s given his team a chance to start acting on his departure before the moment is upon them. And in so doing, he’s clarified the Red Sox’ to-do list this offseason with one major piece of information: It no longer makes sense to rush to deal Hanley Ramirez.
It remains to be seen whether Ramirez at first base proves a disaster or a revelation. But there’s now an end-point to the experiment if it doesn’t work. And there’s a need looming closer on the horizon than one might have anticipated at the conclusion of a 2015 season that saw Ortiz smash 37 homers.
The idea of tolerating two years – perhaps more – of another defensive transition in line with the one that the Red Sox endured in 2015, with Ramirez’s fish-out-of-water misadventures in left field, seemed hard to imagine. But if there’s just one year to bridge before Ramirez can become a full-time hitter, the calculus is different.
No team is going to take on the full brunt of Ramirez’s contract. He’s owed $68.25 million over the next three years. In late July, three evaluators suggested that the Sox would have to assume $30 million to $40 million of the rest of his deal if they wanted to trade him.
But now, the Sox are in a position where they’ll need Ortiz’s successor by the start of the 2017 season – no small task given what the designated hitter has given them over the course of his career.
Consider: Since Ortiz joined the Sox for the start of the 2003 season, their designated hitters have a .910 OPS – a colossal 101-point advantage over the second-highest team OPS over the past 13 years (Cleveland, .809). That is the largest advantage that any team has enjoyed at any position in the majors during that time.
Indeed, that 101-point spread is more than twice the size of the next largest margin separating the top performing team at a position (Cardinals first basemen, .927 OPS) from the second-place performer (the Reds, whose .880 OPS is 47 points behind St. Louis’).
So, in a lineup that is built primarily around contact and doubles, the Red Sox will lose their one steady supply of thunder when Ortiz goes. But, of course, if Ramirez rebounds from his dreadful 2015 season – which started with considerable promise, but spiraled due to injuries and an approach that seemed to unravel for a variety of reasons as the year progressed – he could do a reasonable job of imitating the kind of production the Sox have long seen at DH.
Since Ramirez became a full-time big leaguer in 2006, among players with at least 3,000 career plate appearances, he ranks 23rd in the majors in both OPS (.861) and OPS+ (129). That’s not quite Ortiz territory (.940 OPS, 146 OPS+), but those marks exceed the totals of slugging first baseman/corner outfielder Chris Davis (.835 OPS, 122 OPS+) – a player who is likely primed to receive a contract for well over $100 million this winter.
Where else could the Red Sox go for offense at the DH spot after 2016 if they deal Ramirez? Internally, perhaps a prospect like Sam Travis would be ready for the big leagues, in which case the Sox could hope that Travis and Travis Shaw can produce at first and DH – but that would represent an awfully large leap of faith based on limited big league track records.
They could sign Davis this winter and make him their starting first baseman for 2016, to be sure – but then they’d be paying well over $30 million a year for the combination of Davis and Ramirez, a potential roster-crippling move.
They could trade for Adam Lind for 2016 and perhaps extend him beyond next season – but again, that would mean they were paying $20 million or more per year for the combination of Lind and Ramirez . . . while also yielding one or more prospects to land Lind.
There will be other bats on the market after the 2016 season, though a number will be at a point where it would be natural to anticipate decline, perhaps even steep decline, barring an Ortiz-like defiance of odds and aging curves – Edwin Encarnacion will be coming off his age 33 season, Jose Bautista will have finished his age 36 season, Kendrys Morales will be entering his age 34 season, and Matt Holliday and Mark Teixeira will be entering their age 37 campaigns, Adrian Beltre will be turning 38.
If any of those players has a strong walk year in 2016, then to sign them, the Sox would have to make the sort of multiyear commitment that got them in trouble with Ramirez in the first place. And, of course, the Sox would have to sacrifice a draft pick to sign a middle-of-the-order free agent coming off a strong performance.
If the Sox dump Ramirez this winter and then plunge into the free agent or trade market for a hitter next offseason, in all likelihood, they’ll end up asking themselves if they moved too hastily. Why subsidize the exit of a player who hit .295/.319/.682 as a DH in 2015, and whose best offensive marks at any position – .316/.364/.582 in 25 career games – have come when focused solely on smashing baseballs instead of fielding them, if they’ll be searching for a player who can produce in exactly that sort of fashion?
The possibility of having Ramirez as a DH in 2017, of course, doesn’t eliminate some of the other issues that surrounded him in 2015. There will still be questions of how hard he’s willing to work at first base, which in turn will represent a question of whether he’s setting the right behind-the-scenes tone for a young core of players who are developing their routines.
Still, given that the time for eliminating the issue of Ramirez’s defensive limitations has shrunk, the Sox face a different landscape in deciding what to do with him. In a world where Ortiz retires after 2016, Hanley Ramirez appears to fit a lot more clearly into the Red Sox’s long-term plans.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.