"Best" and "important" are two different concepts. Sure, they can overlap, and your best players are your most important ones from a total production point of view. However, "important" can have a few different meanings. Take the 2015 Red Sox, for example. It wasn't their star players who sunk their season -- it was the mid-tier ones, like Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello, and more -- who helped the Red Sox slip in the standings into a hole they couldn't dig out of.
So, with that in mind, let's figure out who the five most important players on the 2016 Red Sox are, the ones who, if they falter, could once again drag Boston down regardless of what stars like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, David Price, and the emerging Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts manage. They don't need to have the best seasons of anyone on the Sox -- they just need to do their job.
Ramirez was a disaster in left field, with a season as awful defensively as anything that has come before it. He also hit just .249/.291/.426 after a shoulder injury -- caused by crashing into the wall in left -- wrecked his ability at the plate. 2016 is a new year, though, and he'll be at a new position: first base. If Hanley's shoulder feels good, he should hit, and hit well. The defense is still a question mark, but at least he used to play the infield, so unlike in left, some instincts should be there. At the least, he won't be trying to track any fly balls.
If Ramirez once again falls apart, the Sox have a real problem in the middle of their lineup: between second-year players like Blake Swihart, fellow rebound candidates like Pablo Sandoval, and players who might be seeing their last chance to succeed in Rusney Castillo, Boston's lineup already has plenty of questions in it. Ramirez returning to his pre-2015 form -- he had a 132 OPS+ from 2006 through 2014 and from 2012 through 2014 -- would help the Red Sox cover for other issues on the roster.
Plus, Ramirez is in line to take over for David Ortiz as the team's designated hitter in 2017. If he's not mashing like he's capable, then that not only messes up the present, but also causes problems in the future, too.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
Rusney Castillo isn't the only question mark in the outfield, as Jackie Bradley Jr. comes with his own issues. He's never hit well in the majors other than a month in 2015 when he went nuclear at the plate, and problems with adjustments have always been at the root. He's the one who makes this short list of important players, though, as his defense makes him more essential to Boston's success.
If Bradley hits even just okay -- even if he's a little below-average for a center fielder offensively -- the defense will more than make up for it and make sure he's a valuable piece on the Sox. Bradley's presence in center means Boston's outfield defense will remain strong regardless of what goes down with Castillo, as it would keep Mookie Betts in right field and allow fourth outfielder Chris Young to spend his time in left should he have to take over for someone on a more consistent basis. Now, Young is a capable center fielder, but the difference between "capable" and what Bradley is able to do in center is massive.
Should Bradley fail, though, then the Sox could be left with holes in at least one outfield spot, if not two if Castillo also has issues. They don't have much in the way of outfield depth, and while they could acquire some, the preference is for Bradley to latch on to center for the long-term starting this summer. Like with Ramirez, Bradley's performance has implications that go beyond just this season.
Porcello is probably going to be fine. He's throwing his sinker once more and finished 2015 strong with a 3.14 ERA over his final eight starts, all of which came after a stint on the disabled list. (And possibly weeks of Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis repeatedly yelling at Porcello to undo the damage of his predecessor.)
He has to be fine in 2016, though, for the rotation to work. David Price is at the top, and he'll likely do his David Price thing. Eduardo Rodriguez is only a second-year arm, though, so who knows exactly what he can be counted on for even with his promise. And Clay Buchholz, for all his talent, could very well only be there for 100 innings depending on how things go. Porcello needs to be that dependable, mid-rotation or slightly better arm the Sox are paying him to be.
And as said, he probably will be. Until "probably" is a little bit more affirmed, though, you're right to be nervous. Take heart in the fact that, should Porcello rebound and be the guy the Red Sox believed they were extending, his contract is suddenly going to look pretty good in a world shared with $70 million Ian Kennedy.
Speaking of back-end starters, Kelly is a key component of the Red Sox rotation because of what he can be. No, no, this isn't a suggestion that he's going to morph into a mid-rotation or better starter. It's simply a reminder that a successful run as a fifth starter from Kelly means the Red Sox don't need to dip into their pitching depth or go looking for a more expensive alternative, whether that alternative is expensive in dollars, prospects, or both.
How a partial Ramirez rebound could hurt the Sox
Red Sox fans are hoping for a big rebound season from Hanley Ramirez. If he only gets partway there, though, it could end up hurting the Red Sox more in 2015 than if he simply crashed and burned right out of the gates.
If Kelly can hold on to the fifth spot -- and deserve to -- it leaves Henry Owens in the minors to continue to work out the kinks. It also makes him available to take over for, say, Buchholz, should he suffer another injury. It keeps Steven Wright in the bullpen and as an emergency starter. It helps the Sox avoid using Roenis Elias in their rotation while trying to compete. And maybe it opens up space for Brian Johnson to be trade bait or to be converted into a lefty reliever who can take down righties -- that might not seem important with the 2016 bullpen, but remember: Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara are both free agents at the end of this season.
So, there is a lot riding on Kelly and his success. If he fails, the Sox have to go with Plan B. If he fails while someone is hurt, they might be looking at Plan C or D at that point. The longer Kelly is a viable fifth starter, the better off the Sox are, both now and later.
Seriously, though, you don't want the Red Sox to be dipping into that $70 million Ian Kennedy market anymore than they have to.
John Farrell and Dave Dombrowski
Okay, so neither of those two are players, and they are in fact two people and not one, but they matter more to the success of the 2016 Red Sox than many others. Dombrowski needs to make a move to find a new outfielder or starting pitcher or third baseman should the likes of Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley, Joe Kelly, or Pablo Sandoval struggle to the degree they have in the past once more. He can't sit around waiting too long, or else the season could be lost depending on how many of them are failing to have the kind of season Boston needs from them.
Farrell, too, needs to keep up with this, and not push Kelly further than he shows he's able to go, to not stick with Sandoval too long at third base if he shows that the old him just isn't coming back, and so on. The Red Sox have ways of making Sandoval vanish bit by bit if necessary -- Travis Shaw and Brock Holt are both on the roster and can both play third as necessary -- so if Panda doesn't show up hitting and fielding like needed, Dombrowski and Farrell need to do something about it.
Not satisfied with this last bit? Well, insert Pablo Sandoval in for Farrell and Dombrowski, then. The Sox don't even need him to be great. They could just use him being not bad. It'll be an expensive not bad, but hey, those are the risks of free agency, and for all the prospects the Red Sox have developed the past few years, none of them were third basemen. So it goes.