In 2014, the Red Sox gave a combined 546 plate appearances to Will Middlebrooks, Grady Sizemore, and Allen Craig. That's close to a full season dedicated to three players who combined for a -2.6 fWAR. That's negative 2.6, loosely suggesting the Red Sox should have been able to pull some guy up from the minors or, stick them in for that trio, and win a few more games just by addition through subtraction.
In 2015, it was worse. It took just two players--Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez--to accrue 935 plate appearances en route to a -3.8 fWAR. In fact, the 2015 team was just filled with negatives. Craig contributed another -0.9, Daniel Nava -0.4, and Sandy Leon -0.5. And this is without getting into their impressively bad group of relievers.
Every team will wind up with some negatives. The most productive batch of position players in the league (the Jays) came up with six of them. But those players totaled 203 plate appearances, and cost Toronto less than a win. If the Red Sox' negatives had cost them only that much, they would jump from the 17th most valuable lineup to the 6th.
There's a tendency to focus on the intended starters for any given season, and with good reason. It makes no sense to plan for failure while setting yourself up for it by ignoring Plan A. But that's kind of the situation the Red Sox find themselves forced into this coming season. In many ways, this coming offseason is as much about the backups as the starters.
After all, that -3.8 win duo? They're owed a ton of money--likely too much to unload--and have a history of success that's too long to simply give up on if the only return is an open roster spot. If Dave Dombrowski could push a button and have them off both the roster and payroll, he'd do so. But it takes two to tango, and while it's entirely possible the Red Sox start the season with neither man, it seems more likely they'll start it with both.
They need a Plan B. And they need to be willing to act on it.
For some players, slow starts can be ignored. For both Hanley and Sandoval, given the combination of investment and (based on past production) potential even the disaster year that was 2015 is not enough to completely eliminate them from the plan for 2016. Past production is why David Ortiz gets to have a .677 OPS in the middle of May (particularly given his history of slow starts) and potential why Mookie Betts gets to do that into June.
But what if we're a quarter of the way through 2016, and Sandoval or Ramirez is in the midst of another disaster? With young players like Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart, and Bradley, the Red Sox are in a position where they can win in spite of $40 million providing zero production. But $40 million to actually sap wins from the team while also taking up valuable plate appearances that could be given to positive players? That is extraordinarily difficult to overcome.
So it's May 20th, Hanley is hitting .250/.290/.425 again, and playing mediocre-at-best defense at first base. What do you do?
For me, that's enough. It's time to give Travis Shaw the role. Maybe Travis Shaw is some shadow of the guy he was in those first few weeks. More likely, he's just a decent first base glove with a little pop, perhaps a fringe-average roleplayer. But so long as there's no glaring weakness lurking there that will quickly be exploited and cause him to be a complete black hole at the plate, that fringe-average roleplayer is a massive upgrade on what Hanley Ramirez was last year. The difference between the fringe-average roleplayer and the total disaster is about the same as the difference between the fringe-average roleplayer and an All-Star candidate.
So it's May 20th, Pablo Sandoval is hitting .245/.290/.365 again, and playing a miserable third base again. What do you do?
Well, you call Travis Shaw over to third! He's inexperienced there, but seemed at least passable when he tried the position in--wait, what's that? He's already playing first because Hanley bombed? And Brock Holt is filling in for an injured player elsewhere?
The Red Sox would love to start 2016 with neither Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval on their roster and payroll. It's probably not going to happen. And if in the end they have both of these huge, huge risks on hand, they have to be prepared for not just one, but both to be just as bad as they were last year. That doesn't mean filling out the rest of the starting nine to carry that weight. It means having backup plans for both. And no, Brock Holt doesn't count when he's being relied on to cover second, short, and all three outfield spots as well.
The backup doesn't have to be great. Nobody's expecting Dave Dombrowski to go out there and convince an All-Star to come sit on the bench for the Red Sox. It's really just a matter of finding someone passable. Someone they can rely on to be mediocre, because mediocre is so much better than the alternatives. These are not lost years coming up for the Red Sox, even if Sandoval and Ramirez never rebound. But they could wind up that way if both are allowed to drag the team down with them. Forget veteran status, forget contracts, forget everything other than what they bring to the team. If they're not performing after 15 months in Boston, it's not worth gambling seasons on the desperate hope that they remember the players they used to be.