Jim Davis/Globe Staff
After the 2014 season, the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez to play left field. But on Friday, they made an announcement that at first blush sounds like it came out of left field, too.
Around 3:45 a.m. on Friday, after the Red Sox had returned to Fenway Park from a road series against the Tampa Bay Rays, manager Alex Cora and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski informed the 34-year-old that he would be designated for assignment. The move freed a spot on the major league roster for the return of second baseman Dustin Pedroia — who was activated on Friday from the disabled list, where he’d spent the first seven weeks of the season while recovering from knee surgery — and ended the alternately fascinating and maddening tenure of Ramirez in Boston.
“He really didn’t say very much. We thanked him for everything that he did, wished him nothing but the best. There really wasn’t much reaction at that particular time,” said Dombrowski. “But at 3:45, I don’t think anybody was really exuberant at that time of the day.”
The conversation concluded a daylong organizational pivot. Dombrowski said that, entering Thursday, he’d been prepared to make a different move to free a spot for Pedroia. Cora strongly implied that the team was planning to open a roster spot for the veteran second baseman by trading versatile but little-used reserve Blake Swihart.
But on Thursday morning around 11:30, Dombrowski said that he received a call from his manager proposing a different direction for the roster: Cora wanted to remove Ramirez.
Dombrowski’s reaction? “I wouldn’t say shocked but I’d say surprised,” Dombrowski recalled later. “That was not the direction we were going to in that particular time. But again, we have talked about so many different things.”
While the idea seemed like something of a bolt from the blue regarding a player who’d been an early-season lineup fixture, it didn’t seem as outlandish given the player’s actual performance.
Over his first three years in Boston, Ramirez proved wildly inconsistent. In 2015, the experiment of putting him in left field proved a disaster both offensively and defensively. In 2016, with a move to first base, he reestablished himself as a significant contributor, hitting 30 homers in 147 games. But last year, while dealing with left shoulder discomfort that led to offseason surgery, he once again performed at a below-average standard.
In two months this year, the pendulum continued to swing. Placed back in the third spot of the lineup, he began the year with a scorching April (.330 average, .874 OPS, 3 homers, 17 RBI) but faded dramatically in May (.163 average, .500 OPS, 3 homers, 12 RBI). He was hitless in his last 21 plate appearances (0 for 20 with a walk) while pounding one groundball after another to the left side of the infield.
Yet Ramirez continued to play every day at designated hitter or first base, starting 44 of the first-place Red Sox’ first 50 games, even as fellow first baseman Mitch Moreland was performing at a superior level both offensively (.311 average, 1.001 OPS, 7 homers) and defensively while playing in roughly half of the games. That alignment was becoming untenable.
Cora wanted to give Moreland more time in the lineup at Ramirez’s expense. In that scenario, the Sox had two concerns. First, if limited to occasional starts at first base or designated hitter against lefthanded pitchers, Ramirez would afford Cora little roster flexibility off the bench. Secondly, some members of the organization felt that Ramirez’s attitude could become a problem if he wasn’t a lineup staple.
“I did feel that the roles [for Moreland and Ramirez] were about to change,” said Cora. “I think [Ramirez’s] role was going to diminish and for how good of a player he is, it was going to be difficult.”
“Ultimately, it comes into my final decision, but [Cora] said, ‘I really want to play Mitch Moreland more. He’s a good player. He’s played very well for us. I don’t think Hanley is a person that handles sitting on the bench well. It gives us an opportunity to keep Blake Swihart and also be in a position where Blake can get some more playing time,’” recounted Dombrowski. “So, he said, ‘This is something I recommend us doing.’
“I said, ‘You’re sure?’
“He said, ‘Yeah,’ and he went into some different reasons behind it, his thought process.”
Dombrowski asked Cora to mull the decision further and to review it with members of his coaching staff. After he did so on Thursday afternoon prior to the game against the Rays, the decision remained the same. Cora felt that, with Pedroia back, his best bench would feature do-everything reserve Brock Holt, a lefthanded hitter; Eduardo Nunez, a righthanded hitter who can play third, second, and short; and Swihart, a switch-hitter who can catch and play first, third, and left field. While Swihart — a 26-year-old who still has considerable potential given his athleticism — had been in mothballs for much of the year, the Sox now envision him getting more playing time whether at first base against lefthanded starters or behind the plate now that Ramirez is gone.
With that bench — and with the return of Pedroia as the team’s primary second baseman — Cora believes he has the roster that will best serve the Red Sox for the duration of 2018.
“It’s a move that’s surprising for a lot of people, but it’s a baseball move and I do feel that we can maximize this roster, the way it is now, better than [how] it was yesterday,” said Cora.
By designating Ramirez for assignment, the Red Sox now have seven days to trade him or, more likely, release him. The team will remain on the hook for more than $15 million he’s owed over the duration of the 2018 campaign, the last guaranteed season of the four-year, $88 million deal he signed to come to Boston in December 2014.
By moving on from Ramirez, however, the Red Sox ensured that they will not be on the hook for another expensive year of his services. Had Ramirez accumulated 497 plate appearances this year — a threshold he was on pace to clear easily — he would have guaranteed a $22 million “vesting option” for 2019.
The Sox were prepared to let Ramirez stay in the lineup and let the option vest if his production warranted it. They insist that next year’s payroll didn’t guide them to release him.
“The vesting option has nothing to do with [the decision],” said Dombrowski. “We’re trying to do everything we can to win.”
However, an unknown loomed over the team about how Ramirez might respond if reduced to a part-time role that would jeopardize next season’s potential earnings. Ramirez repeatedly said that he wasn’t concerned about the vesting option, and that his sole focus was the team’s performance, but in designating (and almost surely releasing) him, the Red Sox won’t have to test the proposition.
Nor will the team have to concern itself with having to pay him $22 million for next season.
All of that said, the decision is not a risk-free one for the Sox. Despite weak overall numbers this year, Ramirez owned a solid .333/.378/.476 line on the season against lefthanded pitchers — a demographic that has given many members of the Red Sox lineup trouble. Moreover, even with his May fade, Ramirez isn’t far removed from looking like a hitter who proved capable of, at times, being a game-changer.
The decision to move on from Ramirez ends a sometimes entertaining, often rocky four-season tenure for a player who returned as a free agent to the organization with whom he made his big league debut in 2005. Signed officially to a four-year deal on the same day that Pablo Sandoval was introduced on a five-year, $95 million contract, Ramirez beamed about returning to the organization where he’d put himself on a prospect path that resulted in early-career stardom as a member of the Marlins following a 2005 trade to Florida by the Red Sox.
Ramirez’s on-field performance ultimately failed to match either his track record or the expectations that greeted his return to Boston. Off the field, Ramirez proved a source of levity and amusement as well as a source of frustration to Red Sox coaches and officials, particularly when he frustrated those trying to offer him instruction in 2015 and 2017.
This year, Ramirez had received public praise for his comportment.
“He was amazing,” said Cora.
But the fact of his midseason release will raise questions about whether there were unknown off-field issues, or whether this decision was made solely to provide Cora with the most functional roster. Either way, the shock of the Red Sox’ decision to walk away from the final four months of Ramirez’s contract offers some symmetry to a deal that likewise came as a shock when it was first announced.
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