Back at the beginning of February, Austin Yamada wrote an article for Beyond the Box Score about how Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval couldn't help but improve the Red Sox. The argument was simple: the two players who combined to cost the team four wins by fWAR's calculations could either get better, or they could get out of the lineup. There was no way they'd be given the leeway to sink the Red Sox quite so badly as they did in 2015.
It's a fine point, but one that begs a serious question: when will enough be enough? For the Red Sox to call it quits on the pair--one or both--they have to find where they're drawing the line in the sand.
The answer is obviously not anywhere in the next few weeks. Hanley Ramirez is off to a decent start in Spring, Pablo Sandoval, meanwhile, continues to look like the rest of his baseball career was one big prank the rest of the league played just to get the Red Sox to sign him. No, it's not going particularly well.
And none of that matters. It's Spring Training. Good players put up bad numbers, bad players regularly look like stars. Nothing that happens in the month of March should really be taken seriously.
But once we get to April? That's a different story. And that's where, if things go wrong, the Red Sox will have to start making difficult decisions.
For my money, there's a few things to be taken into consideration here. First: how are the Sox doing in the standings? People act like the first months of the season are just too early to start paying attention to that sort of thing, but the reality is a win in April or May is worth just as much as one in September. If the Red Sox are winning in spite of some early struggles from Sandoval and Ramirez, they can probably afford to give them some more rope, perhaps all the way into June, given that it's hardly uncommon for players to have successful seasons after slow starts.
Obviously, performance also comes into it, but shouldn't just be taken at face value. Red Sox fans have little reason to cut either player much slack, but just looking at a low OPS and deciding that's that because we expect nothing more from hem isn't productive or fair. For Pablo Sandoval, if he's still pounding the ball into the ground at a greater pace than ever before (49% last season compared to a previous career-high of 45%) without having nudged his K or BB numbers back in the right direction? That's one thing. If he's stinging outs at fielders, it's another.
For Hanley, it's gotta be about walks and power. We saw Hanley establish an aggressive approach at the plate in April when he was crushing the ball all over the place, and then prove unable to find any level of balance when that power surge was abruptly cut off by his collision with the wall. If Ramirez is getting BABIPed to hell and back? Give him time. If he just can't hit like he used to? Give him his walking papers.
Photo Credit: Maddie Meyer
There's also the replacements, though. And players like Travis Shaw and Brock Holt could put a lot of pressure on the pair, and make the transition that much smoother for the Red Sox at the same time. At the end of the day, the most likely scenario for Ramirez or Sandoval losing out likely just involves their playing time being slowly sapped by a more productive Shaw or Holt rather than a sudden dramatic benching/DFA. At the same time, if the backups aren't giving the Red Sox much reason to make a big switch, they may as well keep all their options open.
There's no one time limit to be placed here, as you may have gathered, but that doesn't mean we can't put together something more general. In any case where Sandoval and Ramirez are actively hurting the team, the Sox probably don't want to let it get much into June even if the backups aren't performing and the team is doing fine. There's no way they'll be winning a World Series with seriously negative players on their roster, and if the Sox have to go out and actually find replacements on the market (even if those replacements are mediocre), better they get to work on it early, rather than letting the problem linger and leaving them desperate at the deadline.
In the event that Holt or Shaw are producing? The change can probably start right away. Maybe it goes from seven games in ten going to Hanley down to five by the end of April, then three by the end of May. Again, this is the best, least dramatic outcome if either of the two is struggling, since it can be a smooth transition that even offers the promise of more playing time for the former stars should they get it together.
But that presupposes that the likes of Holt and Shaw are getting playing time enough to actually show themselves worth swapping in, and there's no guarantee of that. But in the event that things start going south for the Red Sox before that happens, and it's one or both of Sandoval and Ramirez dragging the team down, that's when it might be time to just take a big gamble and tell Travis Shaw to get in there and do what he can to save the day. And the Sox may not have long to make that change. Hanley and Sandoval had already cost the Red Sox a win by the end of May last year, which doesn't sound so bad until you remember how they actually started the season reasonably well. If April had been as bad for them as the rest of the year, the Red Sox would likely be down two-to-three wins just by virtue of having those two players in the lineup.
If they're that bad, how early is too early? May 1st? Probably not by much. The Red Sox did not pick up the likes of David Price and Craig Kimbrel to spend this season losing due to leaving negative-value players in the lineup. And while cutting the cord on expensive players might scream of desperation after a bad start to the season, but if they're still bad after a year and a month, is the chance that they're better after a year and two worth risking David Ortiz' last season on?
No, no it is not.
Of course, the real hope is that the Red Sox start the season winning a bunch of games in no small part because Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval start playing like their old selves. Nothing would relieve Red Sox fans more than having those millions of dollars start producing. But that's perhaps not the most likely of scenarios, and should the Sox not find themselves so lucky, they'd best be ready to make the changes necessary before inaction sinks the season.