For all of the acquisitions and changes the Red Sox made this winter, a great deal of their potential to transform from a back-to-back last-place team back into a contender relies on the ability of their biggest disappointments of a year ago to rebound. Perhaps that fact helps to explain why (as Peter Abraham writes) manager John Farrell, first base coach Ruben Amaro, and mental skills coach Laz Gutierrez made the trip to visit with Hanley Ramirez this week.
The team is investing considerable faith in the idea that one or both will bounce back from their horrific Red Sox debuts in 2016, having passed on any opportunities to deepen its pool of corner infielders to this point of the offseason. Perhaps that approach relates to the consistently positive reports the team has offered about the offseason workout programs of both Ramirez, as he prepares for his transition to first base, and third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
But for every note of optimism that’s sounded about both players, and about their proximity to consistent track records as above-average or well above-average performers, it’s worth a clear-eyed look at the likelihood that Ramirez and Sandoval haven’t arrived at a career point where their best days are behind them.
While the Red Sox have seen players come to Boston and struggle in their first year, they haven’t seen anything like what Ramirez and Sandoval endured in their first season in Boston during the free agent era. Baseball-Reference.com pegged Ramirez (.249/.291/.426 with incredibly bad defense) as having been valued at a -1.3 WAR, meaning 1.3 wins below replacement level; Sandoval had a -0.9 WAR. Those are the two worst marks by any Red Sox players since 1985.
If Ramirez and Sandoval were in their mid-30s, one bad year would set off sirens. Does the fact that Ramirez is entering his age 32 season and Sandoval will be in his age 29 season ease the concerns around them?
It’s hard to say, in part because there’s a fairly limited pool of players who a) were in the Ramirez and Sandoval age demographics; b) enjoyed the sort of consistently strong track records of Ramirez and Sandoval prior to their derailments; and c) then had a Wile E. Coyote-style plummet off a cliff. But the lion’s share of evidence involving such players suggests that, as with the Coyote himself, the effort to recover from a descent can prove Sisyphean.
|Player||Two years before crater||Crater||Post-crater|
|Kendrys Morales||Ages 29-30||2.3 WAR avg||Age 31||-1.0 WAR||Age 32||2.4 WAR|
|Brian McRae||Ages 29-30||2.3 WAR avg||Age 31||-2.5 WAR||Age 32||Out of baseball|
|Howard Johnson||Ages 29-30||2.8 WAR avg||Age 31||-1.4 WAR||Age 32||0.8 WAR (part-timer)|
|Brook Jacoby||Ages 29-30||3.4 WAR avg||Age 31||-1.4 WAR||Age 32||0.7 WAR||Never played after 32|
|Bob Oliver||Ages 29-30||2.8 WAR avg||Age 31||-1.5 WAR||Age 32||-0.4 WAR||Never played after 32|
|Derek Bell||Ages 28-29||4.0 WAR avg||Age 30||-1.4 WAR||Age 31||1.7 WAR||Cratered again at 32, never played after|
|Alvin Davis||Ages 28-29||3.2 WAR avg||Age 30||-1.8 WAR||Age 31||-0.4 WAR||Never played after 31|
|Tony Pena||Ages 28-29||3.6 WAR avg||Age 30||-1.1 WAR||Age 31||2.4 WAR|
|Ted Sizemore||Ages 28-29||3.2 WAR avg||Age 30||-1.3 WAR||Age 31||0.5 WAR (part-timer)|
|Frank Thomas||Ages 28-29||2.7 WAR avg||Age 30||-1.7 WAR||Age 31||-0.5 WAR||Had two more solid years (2.7 WAR avg) at 32-33|
|Richie Sexson||Ages 30-31||3.2 WAR avg||Age 32||-1.1 WAR||Age 33||-0.1 WAR||Never played after 33|
|Jim Piersall||Ages 30-31||4.0 WAR avg||Age 32||-1.0 WAR||Age 33||-1.4 WAR||Had one more good year as a part-timer (2.0 WAR) at age 34|
|Travis Jackson||Ages 30-31||3.1 WAR avg||Age 32||-1.2 WAR||Age 33||Out of baseball|
|Billy Urbanski||Ages 30-31||3.0 WAR avg||Age 32||-2.3 WAR||Age 33||0.3 WAR|
Of those, just one (Kendrys Morales, who went from a 2.3 WAR at ages 29-30 to a -1.0 WAR at age 31 to a 2.4 WAR for last year’s Royals at age 32) returned to something approximating his performance in the two years that preceded his struggle. Two of the players (Morales and Tony Pena) posted a 2.0 WAR or better the season after their “crater” year, making them worthy of everyday roles.
But the vast majority of players in the Ramirez demographic performed the year after their “crater” at just above or below replacement level, and a shocking half (7 of 14) of the players experienced such extreme skill erosion that they never played beyond their age 33 season. Players like Brian McRae and Alvin Davis and Richie Sexson and Brook Jacoby endured sudden and irreversible descents from their place as quality everyday players, quickly finding themselves without teams.
In theory, the outlook should be slightly better for Sandoval (.245/.292/.366 in 2015) given that he’s younger than Ramirez and his performance (as measured by WAR) wasn’t quite as horrendous as that of his teammate. And it is. But the fact that the forecast isn’t as dark as it is for Ramirez is like saying there’s a 75 rather than an 85 percent chance of rain.
|Player||Two years before crater||Crater||Post-crater|
|Melvin Upton||Ages 26-27||3.0 WAR avg||Age 28||-1.6 WAR||Age 29||-0.5 WAR||(Had a decent bounceback in part-time role at 30)|
|Khalil Greene||Ages 26-27||3.0 WAR avg||Age 28||-0.5 WAR||Age 29||-0.8 WAR||Out of baseball at 30|
|Felix Jose||Ages 26-27||2.4 WAR avg||Age 28||-0.6 WAR||Age 29||0.8 WAR||Journeyman starting at 30|
|Greg Luzanski||Ages 26-27||4.7 WAR avg||Age 28||-1.3 WAR||Age 29||0.4 WAR||Averaged 2.5 WAR from ages 30-32 as a DH|
|Allen Craig||Ages 27-28||2.2 WAR avg||Age 29||-1.2 WAR||Age 30||-0.7 WAR|
|Tony Batista||Ages 27-28||2.6 WAR avg||Age 29||-0.5 WAR||Age 30||-0.2 WAR||Never again had a positive WAR season|
|Jeffrey Leonard||Ages 27-28||3.4 WAR avg||Age 29||-0.9 WAR||Age 30||1.5 WAR||Never again exceeded 1.5 WAR - though threw the flap down at age 31|
|Ken Landreaux||Ages 27-28||3.2 WAR avg||Age 29||-1.3 WAR||Age 30||2.1 WAR||Role dwindled at ages 31-32; out of baseball by 33|
|Tony Armas||Ages 27-28||3.2 WAR avg||Age 29||-0.9 WAR||Age 30||2.6 WAR||Quickly downhill after 30|
|Cleon Jones||Ages 27-28||3.5 WAR avg||Age 29||-0.8 WAR||Age 30||-0.4 WAR||One-year bounceback at 31 (1.6 WAR) but then basically done|
|Jim Wynn||Ages 27-28||6.0 WAR avg||Age 29||-0.6 WAR||Age 30||5.5 WAR||Had a terrible year in the aftermath of divorce; bounced back to dominant form|
|Paul Konerko||Ages 25-26||2.2 WAR avg||Age 27||-0.6 WAR||Age 28||2.3 WAR|
|Carlos Baerga||Ages 25-26||2.6 WAR avg||Age 27||-1.4 WAR||Age 28||1.1 WAR||Marginal journeyman thereafter|
|Ruben Sierra||Ages 25-26||4.1 WAR avg||Age 27||-1.7 WAR||Age 28||0.2 WAR||Mostly negative WAR player after that|
|Mitchell Page||Ages 25-26||4.2 WAR avg||Age 27||-0.6 WAR||Age 28||0.9 WAR||Marginal player for a few years thereafter|
|Wes Covington||Ages 25-26||3.0 WAR avg||Age 27||-0.5 WAR||Age 28||-0.5 WAR||Mostly negative WARs after|
|Eddie Joost||Ages 25-26||2.6 WAR avg||Age 27||-0.6 WAR||Age 28||Did not play (war)||Averaged 4.0 WAR from ages 31-36|
|Tony Piet||Ages 25-26||2.2 WAR avg||Age 27||-0.6 WAR||Age 28||2.1 WAR|
|Jake Stahl||Ages 25-26||2.6 WAR avg||Age 27||-0.5 WAR||Age 28||Out of baseball||Ages 29-31, 3.3 WAR average|
The outlook for Sandoval becomes slightly more promising when considering that three players (Greg Luzinski, Jake Stahl, and Eddie Joost) enjoyed three or more years as 2.0 WAR players at least two years after their crater seasons. (Neither Joost nor Stahl played the year after they cratered, but when back on the field, they excelled. Luzinski had a second straight bad year at age 29 before a strong age 30-32 performance – albeit one where he was about half as valuable as his age 26-27 heights.)
In short, the small sample of players in the classes of Ramirez and Sandoval suggests that the odds are against either player enjoying a bounceback to their pre-Red Sox levels in 2016. The odds that both of them will do so, at least based on the limited precedents, thus appear remote.
The team’s willingness to stay with in-house candidates like Travis Shaw, Sam Travis, Brock Holt, Allen Craig (himself part of the evidence for players who failed to crawl out of a late-20s crater), and Deven Marrero as its insurance options thus represents a potentially significant risk and roster vulnerability. As much as the Red Sox have seemed comfortable with their roster, intrigue about whether they might explore the market for more established corner infield fallbacks between now and the start of spring training is thus unavoidable.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier