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Red Sox veterans are the reason they're losing (and their best hope for winning)

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Last year, the Red Sox’s kids dragged them down. But the team’s veterans deserve much of the blame this season.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Of the many question marks surrounding the Red Sox roster heading into 2015, the club's veteran core provided the least reason for concern.

Instead, Boston's perceived lack of quality pitching stole all the headlines, and for good reason. The Red Sox were betting on a number of bounce-back candidates and adding four new members to their starting staff, none of whom exactly had strong track records as top-of-the-rotation performers.

In addition, after a year in which the team relied on too many young players to carry the load, the Red Sox entered 2015 with 22-year-olds Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts penciled into the everyday lineup. That Bogaerts and Betts also play the two most demanding positions in the field only made their performances more vital to Boston's success this season.

But Ben Cherington had to feel good that his club had a number of dependable veterans to fall back on if all else failed. The signings of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval gave the Red Sox what looked to be one of baseball's most formidable lineups. With David Ortiz and Mike Napoli still around, and Dustin Pedroia finally healthy, Boston looked poise to at least slug their way into contention.

Of course, two months into the season, pretty much the exact opposite has happened. Sure, the pitching has been bad, just as we all feared. Yet neither Mookie nor Xander has struggled to any startling degree.

Rather, the Red Sox's veterans have given the club shockingly meager production. Through April and May, the foundation upon which the team was supposed to be built has proven to be anything but sturdy and reliable. Of all the reasons the Red Sox enter Wednesday with the AL's worst run differential, the most glaring is the underperformance of their veteran stars.

Ortiz's ongoing slump has been well documented, and it's never a good sign when your designated hitter is slugging less than .400 with a wRC+ of 82. Ortiz hasn't struggled like this since the 2009 campaign. The fact he is now 39 years old only makes his lack of production more ominous.

Moreover, neither Pablo nor Hanley has brought the type of stability that Boston was expecting. Despite getting hot at the plate in early May, Sandoval has cooled off considerably since and is hitting far below his career norms. Normally sure-handed in the field, he's made some costly errors recently as well.  Given that he generally hits better in the season's second half and has only recently switched to batting left-handed exclusively (not to mention his long track record of success), the Red Sox can only hope Sandoval begins spraying line drives again soon.

Hanley's case is perhaps more worrisome, however. The 31-year-old hits the ball hard nearly every time he strolls to the plate (even after a shoulder injury torpedoed his production for a few weeks), but he's also been the worst defender in baseball by pretty much every measure. His defense has dragged down his value so much, that despite his exploits with the bat, Ramirez ranks among the least valuable players in baseball this season. He'd probably have to hit 10 home runs every month to make up for how many runs he costs the Red Sox in the field.

Hanley hits the ball hard nearly every time he strolls to the plate, but he's also been the worst defender in baseball by pretty much every measure

Of course, it's a lack of power that has ailed Napoli. Outside of a three-day stretch in which he hit four home runs, Napoli has been woeful at the plate in 2015. The first baseman isn't pulling the ball like he has in years past, and without the power that's long been a part of his production, Napoli doesn't bring all that much value.

The one bright spot among Boston's veterans has been Pedroia. His .288/.352/.429 batting line is just a smidge below his career norms, and the 31-year-old has already hit as many home runs this season as he did in 2014.

But even Pedroia's largely positive season comes with a caveat. He's cost the Red Sox dearly with runners in scoring position, hitting just .196/.245/.283 in such situations. The onus shouldn't solely fall on Pedroia (much of Boston's lineup is failing to perform with men on base), but even he hasn't been quite as valuable as his stats might indicate.

All of these struggles have led to some shocking numbers for the Red Sox's veteran core. These five players have combined for just 0.7 fWAR through the first two months of 2015. If you take out Pedroia's performance, Napoli, Ortiz, Ramirez and Sandoval have put together negative value at -0.5 fWAR.

That lack of production is nearly unfathomable and borders on the worst-case scenario for the Red Sox from a projection standpoint. Simply put, Boston couldn't have expected such underperformance from these five veterans. With a team-wide wRC+ of 89, it's little wonder the team sits in the AL East's basement.

The Red Sox were prepared for an inconsistent pitching staff. They were prepared to let Betts and Bogaerts take their lumps, and even get subpar value out of the catching position -- it's not as if Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan, the expected duo behind the plate, were offensive behemoths. However, Cherington could never have expected such dreadful struggles from the players that were supposed to carry the load offensively.

The one reason for optimism lies in the lengthy track records of success each of these players has. Even though the scuffles of Boston's veterans paint a grim picture, it's hard to imagine the likes of Napoli, Ortiz, Ramirez, and Sandoval continuing to play so poorly all summer long.

At the moment, that's really the only hope the Red Sox can hang their hat on. With the club somehow just 4.5 games out of the AL East's top spot, Boston hasn't seen its chances of contending vanish quite yet.

Still, a trade for an ace isn't suddenly going to fix everything that has gone wrong with this team. The Red Sox's prospects of climbing out from this early hole they've dug themselves begin and end with the veteran hitters that Cherington built this club around.