There's no question that the 2015 Red Sox could have won a few more games than they did. To get that team to a winning record, the Sox likely wouldn't have had to go out and make any big trades. All they would have to have done is bench Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Addition by subtraction.
That's not to say they were wrong to play the pair. The difference between 81 wins and 78 wins amounts to little more than draft position, and that in the wrong direction. We don't hang banners around these parts for fourth place finishes, and there's a lot of advantage to playing them. After all, giving up on expensive players like them after a few bad months is just bad business.
As we've gone over here before, however, that's not true after a year and some months. At some point you have to call a loss a loss, and cut the cord before the damage gets any worse. For Pablo Sandoval, this is a bit open-and-shut. He needs to do just about everything better. Hitting, fielding, the whole shebang. His bat was never exactly superlative, just good, and if he's as bad at defense as he was in 2015 then he's going to have to get the bat all the way back to make himself valuable to the Red Sox. There's just no future for him with the team otherwise.
For Hanley, though, there's a lot of grey area. He has had the sort of bat in the past that's worth keeping around no matter what, and with the Red Sox in need of a designated hitter in 2017 and beyond, really all the Red Sox are hoping for is that he'll hit again. The real question is: how much? If Hanley is hitting like he was in 2013, obviously there's no problem. But that was just 336 plate appearances. Still, if we give him credit for hitting in Los Angeles, a performance on the same level as 2014 would also be more than acceptable. His .283/.369/.448 was good for a 135 wRC+. To give you a point of comparison for that, David Ortiz' .263/.355/.517 in Fenway Park that same season graded out to a mark of 134.
But what about the areas in-between? Last year, Hanley hit .249/.291/.426. That's obviously not good enough. But .275/.340/.460? Something in that area?
At that point, Hanley Ramirez could prove a pretty bad baseball player. There's hope for his defense at first, don't get me wrong. The switch from the left side of the infield to the right requires more a repurposing and refining of skills rather than a completely different set of them as is the case in the outfield. But Ramirez wasn't exactly a fantastic defender to begin with, and the possibility exists that the switch to first proves every bit the disaster that the switch to left did.
And in that case, what are the Red Sox to do? A batting line like the aforementioned .275/.340/.460 isn't what Red Sox fans have grown used to out of their DH thanks to David Ortiz, but it's a lot more than plenty of other teams get out of that position, and has an effective cost of $0 for the Red Sox, since they have to pay Ramirez one way or another.
Instead, the price would be in playing time, and that might prove expensive. A good-not-great Hanley at the plate combined with a tragic Hanley in the field might well be the sort of player that hurts the Red Sox more than he helps them. And it's also the sort of player that Dave Dombrowski is very likely to let play. This, after all, is the man who put together the Cabrera - Fielder infield in Detroit. Yes, his bat is otherworldly, but the words "Miguel Cabrera at third base" should either leave you screaming in terror or crippled with laughter. One of the two. Even if Hanley's bat ends up entirely neutralized by his glove, and even with Travis Shaw (and potentially Sam Travis if he gets off to a good start in Pawtucket) providing alternatives, there's little doubt that Hanley Ramirez will keep playing. Both because Dave Dombrowski likes his bats, and because the Red Sox will need one next year to play DH.
If that scenario should come to pass, the Red Sox can only hope that the games he costs them are meaningless ones--ideally because their record is so good rather than because it's so bad--and not the difference between playing deep into October and going home early.