The Red Sox know who their first baseman is in 2016. Hanley Ramirez has acclimated to the position already in a way he never managed in left field, and while asking him to earn a Gold Glove nomination or anything of the sort is just asking for disappointment, he doesn't need to be stellar to be productive. It's after 2016 that the real questions begin for the Red Sox lineup.
David Ortiz will be retiring following this season, leaving a void in the middle of the Red Sox order that hasn't existed since Nomar Garciaparra was trying to power it by his lonesome. The expectation is that Ramirez, who is a likely candidate to bounce back from a horrid 2015 caused in large part by a shoulder injury suffered playing the outfield, will take over for Ortiz as the team's designated hitter. That will, in turn, leave first open for a more natural first baseman with fewer concerns about their health, whether that player is someone the Sox already have in the organization or someone from outside of it.
This is where the 2016 seasons of both Travis Shaw and Sam Travis come into play. Shaw finished the 2015 campaign on the major-league roster, batting .270/.327/.487 while making adjustments that just weren't as easy to make in the minors thanks to the differences in coaching, technology, and opponents. He's likely to come off the bench -- and often -- in 2016, spelling Ramirez at first to keep him fresh and healthy, as well as representing the primary insurance against another Pablo Sandoval disappointment at third.
If Travis Shaw can prove 2015 wasn't a small-sample fluke, and that he's actually going to be an above-average big-league bat, then he's going to end up with a starting job in 2017. Whether that's at third base or first base remains to be seen, but with Ortiz retiring, you know at least one of those is going to be open even if all goes well for the Sox and their looking-to-rebound corner guys.
As for Sam Travis, he finished his 2015 at Double-A on a .314/.399/.465 run over his last 49 games. There were some rough adjustments at first, but to this point, Travis seems to be balancing his patience with aggression, limiting his strikeouts -- just 14 percent of his plate appearances ended in one during that stretch -- while getting on base plenty through free passes. He followed that up by mashing .338/.395/.515 in the Arizona Fall League: while the AFL is offense-friendly, the league-average player batted .263/.341/.413 this time around.
He just might play his 2016 at Triple-A thanks to what he was doing to Double-A pitchers at the end of last year, unless the Sox are dead set on giving Allen Craig another shot. Even if they are, Craig could always DH with Travis getting his reps at first, so there isn't anything significant keeping them from another aggressive promotion of the now 22-year-old. We already know Red Sox manager John Farrell is a fan of him...
"He's got lightning-quick hands and a compact swing," gushed manager John Farrell. "I marvel at a guy who sits for two hours, then comes up (late in the game) and hits line drives. He's a gritty, hard-nosed type of player and for someone who's come into major league camp for the first time, you hope they make an impression. He's made an impression on everyone who's sat in the stands and watched games, let alone us who work with him day-in, day-out."
...and while Farrell isn't making personnel decisions, you know he's got the ears of Dave Dobmrowski and Mike Hazen when the time comes. And they'll be likely to listen, to, given the alternatives to in-house options.
If the Sox want to go through free agency to solve their first base dilemma next winter, they won't have much to choose from. Edwin Encarnacion will be a free agent, but he's also going to be 34 years old and probably expecting something along the lines of five years and $150 million -- if not more -- if Chris Davis' new contract with the Orioles is any kind of guide. Mark Teixeira, whom the Sox chased before he signed with the Yankees back in 2009, will also be a free agent, and regained his swing last year. He's also missed significant time in his last four seasons and will be 37 years old by Opening Day 2017
That leaves out that, in order to sign someone with those negatives, he still might cost a draft pick should the qualifying offer system still exist and his 2016 is good enough to justify the Yankees placing that tag on him. It also leaves out that, while the Red Sox aren't completely tapped out financially, it will be easier for them to spend significant money following 2018 than before it.
Besides those two, you're looking at part-timer players and platoons, with Pedro Alvarez, Logan Morrison, Mike Morse, Ryan Howard, and an even older Mike Napoli available. More promising options like Adam Lind and Mitch Moreland will also be looking for work, but when there are 21 free agents with experience at first base available, you can bet the Sox won't be alone in looking for a new one.
So, there are no certain solutions in free agency, and that's why the 2016 performances of Travis Shaw and Sam Travis matter so much to the future of the Red Sox. The best-case scenario for Boston is that Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez both rebound while Travis Shaw continues to prove he belongs in the majors, even at first base. Then, Sam Travis doesn't need to be rushed or pushed or relied on too heavily too soon, and the Sox maybe end up with a situation where one of the four is a trade piece to fill a hole elsewhere on the roster.
The reality is probably somewhere between that optimism and your worst fears, though. One of Sandoval or Ramirez probably isn't going to work out, and given what caused their terrible 2015 seasons, more of the worry has to be on Sandoval. Ramirez was at a new position he wasn't equipped for and at times even seemed disinterested in learning about. First base is a different kind of challenge, though, as Ramirez had always played the infield before, and even though he wasn't a good shortstop, he was still a major-league shortstop: that takes a certain level of competence on grounders, liners, and on receiving throws both high and low. Even his offensive troubles can be blamed, to a degree, on an injury he likely never would have suffered were he literally anywhere else on the diamond.
Sandoval, though, was at his natural position, not asked to do anything new, and he didn't perform. Now, he's been too good in the past to simply assume that it's all over and the next four years are a waste, but if you had to pick one to bet against of these two -- unfairly or not -- it's Panda. So, it's important for the Sox that both Shaw and Travis thrive in the present as insurance for 2017 and beyond.
While fears about Travis Shaw are lessening by the day -- he already has some big-league success and appears motivated to play the adjustment game that continuing it requires -- Sam Travis is more of a mystery. In some ways, he's very similar to past Red Sox prospects who walked a lot and made the minors look easy: Ryan Lavarnway, Garin Cecchini, and even Jackie Bradley Jr. all come to mind. None of these three were elite-level prospects -- and neither is Travis -- and it turned out that what worked for them in the low minors didn't work in the high minors or the majors.
Bradley is the only one of the three who has recovered even a little bit from those realizations, but it took him years to get to that point: remember, it was back in 2013 when there were arguments about whether Jackie Bradley Jr. should be called up to help the Red Sox to begin the season. It's now 2016, and we're still wondering if he's got the bat to stick in the majors as an everyday center fielder.
Sam Travis has youth on his side -- he's an old 22, but he's still just 22 -- and he's just a few months of Triple-A proving grounds work away from showing that yes, he deserves a chance in the majors. He'll face the most experienced and most advanced pitchers he ever has this summer, though, and they could be the ones to exploit holes in his swing and his approach -- holes that were imperceptible at the Double-A level and below, but easy finds for Triple-A arms who know what they're looking for.
Travis also seems to understand how to strike the balance between patience and aggression that Ceccchini never quite figured out while with Boston: Cecchini got to the point where he was passive instead of patient at Triple-A, which caused him to start striking out looking more often, and allowed opposing pitchers to control his plate appearances. Bradley, too, has struggled with this, and it's why he strikes out so often -- something he's still attempting to work on by adding a bit more aggression to his approach. Lavarnway was passive, too, in part because he couldn't figure out the secondary offerings of big-league pitchers, and also because his bat wasn't quite fast enough to catch up to their fastballs.
Travis Shaw went through this phase -- he struck out looking quite a bit hoping to draw a walk at Double-A, otherwise looking only for a pitch he could launch over the fence. When he started to react to the pitches his opponents were giving him -- ones he could hit, even if it wasn't for a homer -- everything changed. He crushed Double-A pitching, got a promotion to Triple-A, and then went too far in the other direction. He seems to have found his balance now, faster than Bradley, Cecchini, or Lavarnway managed, and one hopes Sam Travis follows a similar path.
The time of Travis Shaw and Sam Travis as Red Sox mainstays is not assured, nor is it happening now regardless of what they manage this spring. However, what they do in 2016 as a whole will help inform decisions the Red Sox make for the next few seasons. The Red Sox won't be able to replace David Ortiz outright, but in Shaw and Travis, they have the pieces to help the transition along. 2016 is the end of an era in Red Sox history, whether they play well or not, and these two might be able to help kick off the next era immediately if things go right for them in the present.