There was once a time when the Mariners operated in secrecy, when they were rarely connected to big free agent names and never landed them. Last year, they were connected to just about everyone and ended up stunning the world by signing the biggest free agent available. This year, they've wasted no time by kicking off the free agent rumor mill by "aggressively pursuing" shortstop Hanley Ramirez, according to Bob Nightengale.
Ramirez is going to be expensive, as reports have him expecting a deal upwards of $100 million. Fangraphs crowdsourcing predicts he'll end up somewhere around 5 years, $90 million. Any way you slice it, it's a ton of money for a defensively-declining shortstop on the wrong side of 30 who's been clouded with attitude issues his entire career, dating all the way back to his time with Boston, before he was dealt for Josh Beckett.
Beyond the personality quirks, Ramirez is an enigma when it comes to performance. For the most part, he hasn't been the superstar he was from 2007-2009, just a very good, somewhat injury-prone shortstop who hits a lot better than he fields. 2013 complicates things, a year in which he blew up with a whopping 191 wRC+ over 86 games, amassing 5 WAR in just over half a season. That 2013 wasn't some fluke, either -- though he carried a .363 BABIP, his line drive rate was a career high at 22%, and his ISO was .293. If Ramirez didn't remind everyone that he was still capable of being one of the very best players in baseball just a year ago, evaluating him would be a whole lot easier. A declining former superstar who wants big bucks for the years past his prime? This conversation would go a lot like the one last year that involved Matt Kemp. It's super risky to be buying potential on a bat for a guy who's older than 30, and his personality traits don't suggest it's a particularly smart bet.
Beyond 2013, there's plenty to dislike about Ramirez. While never good, his defense is considered to be in decline. Ramirez posted a -10.3 UZR and -9 DRS in 2013, and has never graded out well at short. His agent is already campaigning that he's willing to switch positions, which is all well and good if he wasn't asking for shortstop money. It's like what I wrote about Pablo Sandoval all over again, paying a player at a position he won't play for you. Hanley Ramirez anywhere else but shortstop, bad defense and all, greatly reduces his value. If he regresses back to the years he veered off (2011-2012) after he gets paid, you've got a mediocre corner outfielder making shortstop money. It'd be one thing if the Mariners didn't already have two of the best second basemen and third basemen in the game, but they do. There's nowhere for Hanley to move but the outfield, and that's an instant hit to his value, especially because nobody knows if he'll be any good defending out there.
This rumor might be nothing, of course. The Mariners have already been heavily linked to Victor Martinez as their top target, and now they want Hanley Ramirez badly. Do they really have a bunch more money to spend, or is this just posturing? Who knows. We're far from anything concrete at this point, and investing too deeply in this might be a giant waste of my time, and yours. But let's do it anyway.
Ramirez just doesn't seem like a good use of resources, given that the Mariners already have Brad Miller and Chris Taylor as two quality options going forward at shortstop, ones that other teams around the league would love to have. But the fact that other teams would love to have Brad Miller and Chris Taylor is perhaps the reason the Mariners could go after Ramirez, using the two incumbents as chips to fill other holes around the roster. A package with Roenis Elias, Chris Taylor, and Michael Saunders could land the Mariners something really, really shiny. And they'd have Hanley Ramirez, too!
The Mariners are in a strange new world. In years past, Ramirez would seem like a horrible idea, a contract destined to blow up in the later half when the Mariners could actually have a shot at contending. Dead money in the potentially important years of the franchise plan was an instant no. Those signings would only make sense if the Mariners a) had a big payroll and b) were already contending.
Here we are, and both boxes are checked. Yet it still feels weird to endorse such an obviously risky signing. The red flags are all over the place with Ramirez, but he's clearly a piece that could put the Mariners over the top in 2015. And while it's nice to think about Brad Miller's still-immense potential being the piece that gives the Mariners a boost, Hanley is a near-lock to not suck for the next several years, and Miller is not. Hanley's definitely not a lock to be better than Miller -- Ramirez is oft-injured and his 2014 WAR of 3.4 is actually less than the extrapolated pace Miller was on during his rookie year. Miller doesn't have the injury concerns or the attitude issues, but he's also never sniffed a 191 wRC+. And so the scale teeters.
It's a really interesting, highly risky concept. The Mariners are actually in a position where they can justify risky signings, and if the money is flowing, there are probably worse ways to spend it. My initial take would be to wait and observe the cost, but I've retracted that after realizing that I have no idea what this franchise wants to spend in 2015. It's rumored that they're hot for Victor Martinez and Ramirez, yet that would likely represent at least $35 million in salary between the two, and probably more. If Kevin Mather wants to shock us all and open up the wallet, go for it. If the Mariners can sell high on Chris Taylor, keep Brad Miller, and get Hanley Ramirez too, great. There is a sequence of events that makes a whole lot of sense here, but it involves a big bump in payroll and the perfect trade partners to fill holes all over the rest of the roster.
My gut is screaming no to Ramirez, but my gut is spoiled by years of bad teams in which adding splashy free agents wouldn't make enough of a difference. This year, it could. And while I don't exactly view shortstop as a position of need going forward based on the potential of Brad Miller and their fortunate depth -- plus the fact that the Mariners got 2.9 WAR out of the position last year -- the Mariners did only manage a .239/.295/.344 line from their shortstops. 2.9 WAR or not, we all remember just how bad of a black hole Miller was for a huge chunk of the year, and we certainly all remember coming up a game short of a wild card spot.
There are too many red flags with Hanley Ramirez to give an endorsement, and he would only get one if he could manage to stay at shortstop for at least a few more years. But my reaction this morning has softened from the one last night when the rumor leaked. If the Mariners want to start operating like a high-spending club that goes for it every year, fans shouldn't have all the same concerns they did over the past 10 years. The "it isn't our money" adage is overplayed and misused, but there is still some foundation of truth to it, if the pockets run deep enough. Signings like Ramirez make more sense than they used to. I'm just not convinced he's the right piece for a new model of spending.