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Original Issue

Demanding Supply

The Red Sox pursued Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval because each does something few hitters still can: rake

BASEBALL IS A risk-assessment business. The Red Sox drove home that point on Monday by reaching agreements with free agents Pablo Sandoval, 28, and Hanley Ramirez, 30. The former has dealt with weight issues and periods of unfocused play. The latter is a defensive liability with his own conditioning problems. But for Boston, the $200 million or so risked on the two players is worth it for this reason: Truly great hitters are incredibly hard to find these days.

The Red Sox scored 219 fewer runs in 2014 than they did in '13, when they won the World Series. Their outfielders had an OPS of .669, the second lowest for the franchise in the live-ball era, and hit just 26 home runs, the fewest in any full season for Boston in the past 100 years. They somehow pulled off the trick of making cozy Fenway Park look big.

It's the same story around baseball. Guess what's in demand now: Eleven free agents have signed contracts or agreed to them this winter; only two have been pitchers. The baseball world has been turned upside down. "There are only a couple dozen people on the planet who can hit modern pitching," one veteran executive said on Monday. "[The Red Sox] just signed two of them."

The source, however, then immediately identified the risks: Sandoval does not keep himself in shape, and Ramirez is a liability in the field and in the clubhouse. Make no mistake, the Giants preferred to have Sandoval back. They've lived with his weight fluctuations and periods where he gives away at bats, with all debts settled in October when Sandoval's freakish hand-eye coordination and renewed focus make him a beast at the plate. But Sandoval has been a declining regular-season player for three years, and his career slash line (.294/.346/.465) resembles that of Martin Prado when Prado, at 29, signed a four-year, $40 million extension with the Diamondbacks before the 2013 season (.295/.345/.435). No way is Sandoval twice as good a player as Prado.

Sandoval, however, has the good fortune of being on the market at a time when his offensive skill set makes him an outlier. Take, for example, his ability to hit relief pitching. As postmodern bullpens turn the game into an exercise in leveraging hard-throwing relievers in short bursts, the best measurement of a truly great hitter is how he hits against relievers, when you often lose the platoon advantage and face better, fresher stuff than a starter brings. Sandoval is a .265 hitter against relievers, and Ramirez is a .292 hitter against them. In 2014 relievers held big league hitters overall to a .242 average.

Like Sandoval, the risks on Ramirez are durability-related. Before last season Ramirez floated the idea to the Dodgers that he was a $200 million player. The team, unsure whether he was a shortstop or third baseman or whether he was a 150-game player or a 100-game player, essentially asked him to prove his value. For a while Ramirez answered the challenge. Though his defense at shortstop was well below average, he carried a .281/.376/.466 slash line through July 27. But the more Ramirez played, the more his game and body betrayed him. He played only 39 games the rest of the season with an OPS of .758, down from .842. The Dodgers began to believe he was better suited to the AL, where the DH spot would allow him a better chance of holding up over the length of his next contract.

And so Sandoval and Ramirez wind up in the AL—but on one of the few teams with a full-time DH: David Ortiz. Their addition to the Red Sox' lineup is as much a comment about the state of hitting today as it is about Boston's miserable 2014 season. Watch when Sandoval and Ramirez bat. You don't see defensive overshifts against them. They hit the ball to all fields. They both swing aggressively and make consistent contact. Both have below-average strikeout rates in a period of far too many strikeouts. Both hit with level swings that should not be affected by aging. Hitters like that just don't become available much anymore. It's one explanation Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos gave for throwing $82 million at 31-year-old catcher Russell Martin on Nov. 18.

Now the Red Sox can throw together a yard sale full of outfielders and prospects they don't need to see if they can shore up their pitching. They could trade Mookie Betts and Henry Owens to get Philadelphia lefthander Cole Hamels as long as they want to go all-in on this group of players in 2015. (Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has been telling counterparts that if he trades Hamels, it would have to be in a franchise-altering move.) Boston will see if it can lure Jon Lester back after trading its former ace to Oakland at July's trade deadline, or the Sox can wait out the market to see if a second-tier starter like Ervin Santana falls to them.

The next phase of the rebranding of Boston is unclear, but with Sandoval and Ramirez aboard, the first phase is obvious: Offense is so hard to find that it was worth it for the Red Sox to take the risk on two premier bats that are rarely available.

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