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article imageOp-Ed: Spring storylines — Red Sox can't win without Ramirez, Sandoval

By James Poellnitz     Feb 21, 2016 in Sports
There are many people jumping on the Boston Red Sox bandwagon for 2016 after some impressive moves in the offseason. But the success of this team rests on the shoulders of two players who were acquired last season.
Last season, the starting rotation lacked an ace. Enter David Price, one of the game's best pitchers and the AL Cy Young runner-up. The Red Sox swung for the fences signing the left-hander to a seven-year, $217 million contract, a deal no other team could compete with. Beantown now has its ace.
Continuing to swing for the fences, the Red Sox traded a horde of strong prospects to the San Diego Padres for one of the game's best closers in Craig Kimbrel. With injuries limiting the 40 year-old Koji Uehara last season and not much else behind him, strengthening the bullpen was a must.
That trend continued as the Red Sox traded arguably their most reliable starting pitcher in Wade Miley (yes, a 4.46 ERA in 32 starts was the best they had last season) to the Seattle Mariners for Carson Smith. In his first full season in the majors, the 25-year-old right-hander blew hitters away to the tune of a 2.31 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 70 innings. He finished the season as the Mariners closer.
The last move might be the most underrated of all. In an offseason where outfielders were at a premium, the Red Sox chose Chris Young to join their group of unpredictable hitters. His role will likely be to platoon with left-handed hitting Jackie Bradley, who came alive in the second half of the season but struggled mightily the previous two years. Young last season hit a robust .327/.397/.575 versus southpaws. When lefties were on the mound, Young was the New York Yankees' best player. Even more motivation to sign him was the fact that Young hit better against the Red Sox than any other team (1.130 OPS in 17 games).
The team's biggest addition of all, however, came during the 2015 season when Dave Dombrowski was hired as team president. Known for the construction of the now perennial title-contending Detroit Tigers, Dombrowski looks to do the same in Boston. He wasted no time orchestrating all of the above moves. The hope is that these can help overcome the bad ones that were made before he arrived.
We all remember the big signings then-general manager Ben Cherington made last offseason right? Hanley Ramirez for four years and $88 million to play left field, a position he had never played and no easy feat in Fenway Park. Pablo Sandoval for five years and $95 million simply based off of a reputation of postseason success despite just average regular season success and a known history of weight problems.
These two played worse than anyone could have ever imagined, both at the plate and in the field. Ramirez battled injuries (as usual) and, by the end of the season, became virtually position-less. Sandoval never hit (career worsts in every offensive category), looked bad on defense (.949 fielding percentage) and resembled a New England Patriots offensive lineman more than a Red Sox third baseman.
Cherington's worst move of all came at the start of the 2015 season.
After swinging a trade with the Tigers for righty Rick Porcello, he was given a four-year, $82 million contract extension on Opening Day. I understand that, in 2014, Porcello had his best season as a pro. He posted career highs in innings (204.2), ERA (3.43) and led the league with three shutouts. In the five previous seasons, however, Porcello never had an ERA below 4.32, never threw more than 182.0 innings a year and had only one complete game. It was not a shutout.
What Cherington saw was an opportunity to lock up a 26-year-old pitcher coming off the best season of his career. I get that. But why rush to sign him? At least let him pitch a few games with his new team and then make a decision based on that. If he had done so, Porcello would be a free agent coming off of a season with 15 losses, and 4.92 ERA instead of having $82 million guaranteed from now until 2019.
That's three immovable contracts Dombrowski has no choice but to make the best with in 2016. The Red Sox strengthening their bullpen helps overcome any struggles Porcello may continue to have. But there is nothing that can be done if Ramirez and Sandoval struggle both at the plate and in the field.
Ramirez will once again enter a season for the Red Sox at a position he has never played. First base was the only position with an opening heading into the offseason and Dombrowski and Red Sox manager John Ferrell hope it is a place where he can't hurt the team. When healthy, Ramirez is an exceptional hitter. He has six seasons of at least 20 home runs and five seasons with a batting average of at least .300 (won a batting title in 2009). But you have to go all the way back to 2012 to find a year in which Ramirez held up physically for a full season. The hope is that playing first not only gets him out of the way of the tough plays on defense but also keeps him healthy, being the least taxing position on the diamond.
Sandoval is apparently entering the 2016 season more mature than ever. After making it public knowledge that he chose Boston over the San Francisco because of the weight demands the Giants were making, Sandoval was asked by the Red Sox to drop weight. Reports say he has lost 30-40 pounds. The Red Sox believe this will not only lead to better performance from Sandoval but also improved health. "Panda" played in just 126 games last season, 31 less than in 2014.
If these guys can't bounce back on both offense and defense, the Red Sox could very well be right back at the bottom of the AL East.
The only given in the starting rotation is Price. In nine seasons, Clay Buchholz has put together one healthy, productive season (2010). Joe Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez had their moments last season but could very well be out of the rotation if they struggle. And we already know Porcello's situation.
The new-look bullpen will be good. Kimbrel, Uehara, Smith and Junichi Tazawa might be the best combination of right-handed relievers in all of baseball. The left-handers however are question marks. Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross return after less-than-stellar 2015 seasons. Roenis Elias who came over in the deal with Smith could also factor into the mix though he has thrown all but two games in the majors as a starting pitcher.
Offensively, the Red Sox are great if everyone plays at their best. But to expect that would be premature.
David Ortiz continues to produce but is 40 years old. Dustin Pedroia has had trouble staying healthy the last two seasons. Xander Bogarts and Mookie Betts look like young stars in the making but must show they can repeat their 2015 seasons. The Red Sox don't quite know what to expect from Rusney Castillo but his contract means they have to give him a chance to play. Bradley Jr has shown incredible defense during his time in Boston but which half of 2015 is the real guy at the plate? The catcher position will yield limited offense.
That leads me back to Ramirez and Sandoval. The Red Sox invested $177 million in these two players so there is no turning away from them. With them underperforming, their offense still ranked fourth in the AL in runs scored. As good as that is, it's not enough with the struggles likely ahead for the starting rotation. If both men return to their career averages the Red Sox should have more than enough runs support. Even more importantly, if they can contribute in a positive way defensively, it helps this poor rotation even more.
In a loaded AL East where every team got better in the offseason, the Red Sox need their 2015 big money signees to be the players they are being paid to be. If they are not, they stand no chance at rebounding in 2016.
(All statistics are according to Baseball Reference unless noted otherwise)
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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