Free agent "shortstop" Hanley Ramirez officially signed with the Boston Red Sox on Monday, removing the top available hitter from the market. The final tally came out to four years and $88 million, with a vesting option for a fifth year at another $22 million. There has been a lot of discussion about him in the comments over the last 24 hours, so let's take a look at the situation.
Now, let's start by understanding that the A's were never seriously in the conversation for Hanley. However, from a fan perspective, every available player is on the table and he seemed like one who could make sense on Oakland's current roster. He's a big-time hitter who bats right-handed, and he has a history of playing the shortstop position. The biggest impediment preventing the A's from signing marquee players is usually the length of the contract, not just the dollar amount, as Billy Beane rightfully doesn't like to commit to any player beyond a few years; you can partially thank Eric Chavez for that. But Hanley only got four years guaranteed, and while we don't yet know what the trigger is for the fifth-year option, you can bet it involves staying on the field and out of the trainer's room. If it does vest then at least he will have most likely earned it via good health.
So, was four years too long of a commitment for Oakland, and was $22 million too high of an annual salary? What would it have taken for him to switch courses and stay on the Best Coast? A guaranteed fifth year? For a total of $110 million? $120 million? The A's were clearly in the market for a right-handed hitter and willing to spend to get one, as evidenced by their signing of Billy Butler for three years and $30 million. One obvious reaction to this is to wonder why they didn't go the extra mile to upgrade from lumpy question mark to high-profile star.
The reason is that Hanley comes with major flaws, and while the A's are known to target flawed players, those shortcomings didn't lower his price tag far enough this time. The Red Sox can afford to pay a premium for a player's strengths and then worry later about cleaning up the mess that his weaknesses leave, but the A's need to be more careful in whom they commit to long-term. Furthermore, Hanley would have cost Oakland a first-round draft pick next year, whereas Boston only loses a second-rounder due to its poor 2014 record. Here is the part where we play A's-fan sour grapes, and point out why it's totally okay that Oakland didn't make a serious push, much less a successful one, to ink the star.
Hanley is no longer a shortstop
The most attractive aspect of Hanley's game is that he has always played shortstop. It's one thing to add a great hitter, but it's another entirely to be able to stash that hitter at a premium defensive position and still have the corners available for more offense. That is why guys like Buster Posey and Mike Trout are so much more valuable than their already-impressive raw stats indicate. But once you have to move, say, Joe Mauer to first base, he goes from an MVP-level player to just a regular star.
Hanley has cost his teams 77 runs with his defense at shortstop over his career, according to Defensive Runs Saved. If you're thinking of moving him to third, he cost his teams another 11 runs there in just over half a season's worth of innings in 2012. As I understand it, 10 runs is roughly equivalent to one win in sabermetric terms, so there have been five seasons in which he has cost his teams at least one win with his glove (counting his negative-9 mark last year, rounding up); in three of those, he was closer to costing two wins, and in 2007 he lost 28 runs on defense. He is in Jed Lowrie territory, and possibly even worse.
It was generally accepted that Hanley would not be playing a lot of shortstop for his next team. Given that the Red Sox are rolling with young phenom Xander Bogaerts at short, it's possible that Hanley will never play a single inning there for Boston. Perhaps the A's could have squeezed another year of shortstop out of him to fill the current void, but his defensive home will likely be a problem for the rest of his career. With Pablo Sandoval joining the picture at third and Dustin Pedroia entrenched at second, Hanley will most likely be playing in the outfield for the Red Sox. He has never played in the outfield in his entire professional career. So, a 31-year-old who has only been terrible at defense will be playing a brand-new position at which he has zero experience. His fate would ultimately have been similar here; if you're worried about where Butler will play, you'd have the same problem with Hanley.
Hanley has serious injury issues
Here's what I think Billy Beane sees when he looks at Hanley:
2011: 92 games played
... and that was in his 20s. He'll be 31 next season. He's great when he's on the field, but Billy isn't sinking that kind of commitment into a guy who might not even play. And before you answer with Coco, he was never signed five years into the future and is clearly a uniquely special case in Billy's entire GM career. Besides, even the fragile Coco has played in 50 more games over those same four seasons.
Hanley's injury history on Baseball Prospectus is so long that it fills my entire screen three times over. A sample of highlights:
14 games for back inflammation (2011)
52 games for shoulder surgery (2011)
24 for thumb surgery (2013, the one you cited)
28 for a hamstring strain (2013)
14 for an oblique strain (2014)
List of things that cost him at least one game in 2014:
a/c joint (shoulder) inflammation (twice, came back too fast)
calf strain (again, a month later)
another hand contusion
Lowrie showed us that a history of past injuries is not guaranteed to repeat itself every year, but that doesn't make it a good gamble. Oakland also didn't have to commit to Jed for five years, so the risks can't even be compared. If you want to experience the frustration that injuries can bring to a team, take a stroll back through the 2014 A's second half and relive those memories. Or think about Rich Harden. Or Chavez. Or Brett Anderson. All the talent in the world doesn't help a team if the player can't stay on the field. And again, that injury history is from Hanley's 20s; it's probably only going to get worse in his 30s, and I would bet on at least two of his next five years involving only double-digit figures in games played. It's possible that a move to a less-demanding defensive position could help keep him healthier, but again, that's a big gamble for $100+ million. In an imperfect comp, Mauer, who moved from catcher to first base to stay healthy, still played only 120 games last year.
Butler vs. Hanley
All told, Hanley only got one more year and an extra $12 million per season over Butler. There is no question that Hanley is the better hitter of the two, even with the most optimistic viewpoint of Butler's skills. But to me, they are both DHs who can only aspire to fake it in the field, so we're talking about more than double the salary for far less than double the production. The A's simply can't and won't pay such a steep premium for that marginal upgrade, and now they can spend that extra money to fill holes elsewhere. Some of it might go to Ike Davis if he makes the team, some of it might go to a middle infielder who actually plays in the middle infield, and some of it might go toward a spare starting pitcher. Or maybe Beane invests in another pricey reliever and gets more of a Wade Davis than a Luke Gregerson. One way or another, the price difference between Butler and Hanley is substantial and the A's are better served spreading it around the field -- much like the Red Sox did themselves in their championship 2013 campaign.
Hanley Ramirez is a truly great hitter, and his career 132 OPS+, which he matched in 2014, would look phenomenal in Oakland's lineup. But there's a reason that he doesn't have a guaranteed nine-figure contract right now. His weaknesses and risks are substantial, and it's not hard to see why Beane was unwilling to gamble on him -- assuming that Hanley ever would have taken Oakland's money anyway, even if offered. If the A's had upped the ante, Boston may just have matched, and then it's a choice between playing next to David Ortiz at Fenway Park or playing at the Coliseum next to a revolving door of new teammates and wondering if tomorrow is the day he'd get traded for prospects.
This one was a no-brainer for Hanley, but I think it was also a no-brainer for the A's to take a pass and scour the rest of the market for better value. There exist stars who make sense for the A's, even on high salaries, but he is just not one of them. Now it's up to Billy to go out and actually find that better value, and let's hope his name isn't Andy Parrino.