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Hanley Ramirez emerging as Red Sox' most important player

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Hanley Ramirez may not be Boston's best player, but how he plays in 2016 will have a huge impact on the team both now, and in the years to come.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

It was not so long ago that Red Sox fans were excited to have Hanley Ramirez back in Boston. Here was the prodigal son, the one that got away, finally returning to wear the uniform we'd once pictured him wearing his whole career, but only been given the briefest glimpses of in 2005.

It's hard to remember that excitement and all the many years of dreaming on a Hanley Ramirez trade after 2015, a year where the Red Sox might have even been a winning team if only Hanley Ramirez had never stepped foot on the field. His failures last season were so great that even a move back to the infield and a lengthy period of recovery for that season-killing shoulder injury aren't enough to inspire much confidence. About half the fanbase seems to want him gone. The other half would too, but they're too busy trying to find some way to get rid of Pablo Sandoval to even spare Ramirez a second thought.

Well, it will come as no surprise when I say that's not likely to happen. The Red Sox are likely stuck with Hanley Ramirez as he either seeks redemption or falls further to the point where they're better off getting nothing back from their investment than they are using a roster spot on him. And for the team's sake, Sox fans had best hope it's the former, because Hanley Ramirez might be the most important part of the team for both 2016 and beyond.

The 2016 part is obvious, but it really does need to be emphasized just how big an X-factor Hanley is. David Price will be what he is. Ditto Craig Kimbrel and Mookie Betts and etc. etc. etc. Granted, every year can be counted on to throw a certain number of curveballs, but generally speaking these are the players who form the baseline of a successful team. Their production is almost assumed, and it's the rest of the pieces that actually have to push them over the top. If they don't come through, the Red Sox won't be playing in October. If they do, they could run away with the East.

Of those other players--the variables, if you will--Hanley Ramirez is the wildest of them all. We saw the damage he could do last year in even just two-thirds of a season. His floor is actually probably not quite as bad as last year would make it seem since, well, he's not going to be playing the outfield. But even at first base, Hanley Ramirez' glove has the potential for disaster in it, and if he's hitting the way he did in 2015, the Red Sox will have an untenable player on their hands. It will likely be either another trip to the DL, or an extremely expensive trade whereby they eat most of his money just to get him out of Boston. Either way, the Red Sox will not have Hanley Ramirez on their roster headed into 2017 if he's no good in 2016.

But that's problematic, because the second part of the HanRam plan doesn't even start until 2017. That, after all, is when the Red Sox will have their first long-term opening at DH in over a decade. David Ortiz will be gone, opening up a natural position for the defensively challenged Ramirez if he's capable of producing at the plate again.

If not? Well...that's when things get dangerous. And that brings us to the second part of what makes Ramirez so important: the risks he could save the Red Sox from having to take. Earlier today, we covered the possibility of either Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion being called on to fill David Ortiz' role. The most relevant bit:

Are Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista worthy successors to Ortiz at DH? As they are now, absolutely.The question is how long they're going to be at that level, and how much they'll command. Bautista is going to be 36 years old by the time his next contract begins. Encarnacion will be 34. These are not the players the Red Sox want to be signing to deals of any significant length, but barring decline in 2016, they're also too good to go for particularly short years or low dollars. Bautista should get more than Victor Martinez' 4-year, $68 million given his track record, and the younger Edwin Encarnacion might push into truly ugly territories.

Those are risky dollars indeed to put on players as one-dimensional as Encarnacion and Bautista. These are poor defenders with prolific power. Once that power starts to go, so too will the walks. Decline is often not a gentle process with players like these, and we can't just assume everyone will have David Ortiz' longevity.

Ideally, the Red Sox would not risk this path. Ideally, Hanley Ramirez plays the part for 2017, 2018, and perhaps 2019 given his option. And from there, who knows where they'll be? Perhaps Rafael Devers will provide an obvious answer. Perhaps the Red Sox will finally start using the DH as a rotating spot for resting players as much of the league has done in recent years. Whatever the decision, it's one the Red Sox would rather put off for a few more years, so that their solution doesn't involve a massive investment in a player with a minuscule margin of error. And all they need to get that extra time is for Hanley Ramirez to be Hanley Ramirez.