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Years later, Hanley deal still looms large

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 16, 2009 10:08 AM

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Nearly four years later, if you had it to do over again, would you?

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I would.

"I knew the guy could fly and that he could hit," Dan Duquette said of Hanley Ramirez, the Florida Marlins phenom signed by the Red Sox in 2000 (during Duquette's reign as general manager) and later traded to the Marlins in a deal that brought Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston. "I didn't know he would play shortstop."

At the time of the trade in November 2005, the Red Sox really did not know it, either, particularly amid the organizational turmoil brought about by the dispute between Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino. Maybe Ramirez was a shortstop. Maybe he was a center fielder. But wherever Ramirez landed on the diamond, there was little doubt that he possessed unique talents, a combination of abilities that today make him perhaps the most dynamic all-around offensive player in baseball.

Since the start of the 2006 campaign that marked his award-winning rookie season, Ramirez -- who visits Fenway Park this week for the second time in his career (the first came with the Red Sox for one at-bat in 2005) -- is the only player in baseball to rank in the top 10 in the major leagues in aggregate runs (first), hits (fifth), extra-base hits (fifth), and steals (sixth). He also has made a whopping 77 errors, more than any player (at any position) in the game. Hanley is right up there with Albert, Ichiro, and Mariano as the game's most identifiable stars known almost exclusively on a first-name basis. And he is just 25 (albeit in Dominican years) while having just begun a six-year, $70 million contract that pays him an average salary ($11.7 million) only slightly more than what the Red Sox are paying Julio Lugo ($9 million).

All things considered, Ramirez may be the single most valuable commodity in the game, a young and supremely gifted player who is extremely affordable even in a time of economic crisis, particularly in the first three years of his contract ($23.5 million).

In retrospect, in the fall of 2005, that is what the Red Sox had to give up to get Beckett and Lowell, the latter of whom initially was forced upon the Sox but who has since turned out to be among the most productive third basemen in the game. And though the Red Sox sent three additional minor leaguers to Florida in the deal -- including righthander Anibal Sanchez -- the trade essentially has amounted to Ramirez for Beckett and Lowell, a positively sterling example of the play-now-and-pay-later philosophy that drives so many of the deals in sports today.

The Red Sox got exactly what they wanted from this deal. The Marlins did, too. Two years from now, if Beckett and Lowell are elsewhere -- both are under team control through only 2010 while Ramirez is signed through 2014 -- there may be cause to reevaluate the deal. But by then, too, the Marlins may have traded away Ramirez, perhaps back to Boston, unloading the $46.5 million he is due in the final three years of his deal.

After all, Theo never wanted to trade Ramirez in the first place (trust me on this one), but he already had resigned from the Red Sox when the team pulled off the deal under the watch of Lucchino, baseball lifer Bill Lajoie, and current Red Sox director of international scouting Craig Shipley.

Ramirez himself believes he would still be the with the Red Sox had Epstein not taken his hiatus.

[Epstein] didn't want to trade me," Ramirez told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for today's edition. "I got traded when he kind of quit. I would have been in Boston. It happens."

The Sox have made inquiries with the Marlins about the prospect of reacquiring Ramirez in recent years. The deal easily can be argued from both sides -- that's what made the trade so compelling in the first place -- and Epstein always has operated with the bigger picture in mind, making it clear he would waste no time trading one title for multiple championships down the line.

On this one, everyone can be right and everyone can be wrong.

"We gave up some things, but I think the Red Sox have benefited greatly from Beckett and Mike Lowell," Lajoie said in May 2007, before the Sox went on to win the World Series for the second time in four seasons. "The thought was right. It just happened a year later than sooner [that Beckett and Lowell fully blossomed in Boston]. … It was myself and Craig Shipley who were the proponents of that trade, who wanted to go for it. There were some last-second attempts to stop the trade, but we decided to go through with it."

Lajoie never specified who was behind those "last-second attempts to stop the trade," but the Red Sox obviously were fractured at the time, divided into schools of old and new. Epstein, despite his sabbatical, was speaking with some officials regularly to offer his thoughts on the proposed deal, and owner John Henry was among those who stated publicly that his preference was to sign A.J. Burnett rather than to trade for Beckett, a scenario that would have allowed the Sox to retain Ramirez. Had that happened, there is no telling where Beckett might have ended up -- what if he eventually had surfaced with the Yankees? -- and how he and Lowell might have affected pennant races in 2006 and beyond.

In recent Red Sox history, there has been no single decision to serve as an organizational crossroads quite like the Ramirez deal. It is the ultimate "What if?" scenario.

There is no doubt that the deal has worked out quite well for the Red Sox. Since the start of the 2006 season, only the Angels and Yankees (316 wins each) have won more games than the Red Sox (315). Lowell has knocked in more runs than any major league third baseman but Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, and Aramis Ramirez, and that is despite the fact the second half of his 2008 season was effectively wiped out. Beckett has won more games (55) than any major league pitcher but Roy Halladay (62), Johan Santana (58), or Brandon Webb (56), and he all but single-handedly carried the Sox to the 2007 world title.

And though Epstein might have been against acquiring Beckett and Lowell in the first place, let the record show that he has since signed both players to new contracts ensuring that each would remain under club control through 2010.

As for Ramirez, even Duquette admits that there was no way to project what he would become when the Sox signed him nine years ago on the advice of scout Elvio Jimenez. At the time, the Sox had partnered with the Hiroshima Carp to run an academy in the Dominican Republic, and Jimenez thought Duquette should take a look at a young shortstop whom Jimenez had likened to Jose Offerman. (Yikes.) Duquette made the trip and immediately decided that Ramirez had "more power than Offerman," similarly recognizing that Ramirez (again, like Offerman) may not have possessed the hands to play shortstop in the major leagues.

Years later, Duquette now compares Ramirez's skills at the time to other prominent major leaguers like Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield, who were signed or drafted by the Montreal Expos and Milwaukee Brewers, respectively, when Duquette worked for those organizations.

"He did show that he had a live bat like Vladimir Guerrero. He was tall like that, but a little better athlete than Guerrero," Duquette recalled. "Every time he swung he squared up the ball on his bat, but I didn't know he would have this kind of power. ... Sheffield played shortstop in high school but he had a little thicker body than this kid and Sheffield had a little more power."

Today, Guerrero and Sheffield are potential Hall of Famers in the final years of their major league careers.

In Ramirez's case, he is really just beginning.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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