Ramirez (left) and Sandoval were duds in their Red Sox debuts (Yahoo Sports)
No matter how dedicated we are to our new gym memberships, it's going to take awhile for most of us to shed those unwanted pounds we packed on during the holidays. The Boston Red Sox, however, have used the last few months to beef up in a good way, bolstering their starting rotation as well as their bullpen. While they're already looking new and improved, here are some things they need to do to ensure good health in 2016:
Maintain their second half momentum
While the Red Sox sunk themselves with a terrible start last year, they were quietly one of the hottest teams in baseball after the All-Star break. From July 30th on, Boston had the fourth-best record in the American League and outscored everyone except the Toronto Blue Jays thanks to big turnarounds from David Ortiz and Blake Swihart as well as unexpected production from Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Travis Shaw. Their pitching improved too, with Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly rebounding from disastrous first halves while Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens improved down the stretch. Boston played terrific baseball for two months without Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, and Clay Buchholz, leaving one to wonder what the Sox are capable of if they can all stay healthy.
Fix Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez
Boston desperately needs to get something from their two highest-paid position players, because last year they got less than nothing from the $40 million tandem. Both were All-Stars before joining the Red Sox and are young enough to return to that level, but they need to remind Bostonians why their team shelled out $170 million to acquire them in the first place. Ramirez should have an easier time at first base than he did in left field, while Sandoval's offense should bounce back after cratering last year.
After years of trying to figure out what the future holds for Bradley (26) and Castillo (27), the time has come for Boston to commit to them as everyday outfielders or start searching for replacements. Bradley's entering his fourth season and has yet to prove he can hit consistently at the major league level, whereas Castillo is much too expensive be a project at over $10 million per year. Neither has logged a full season in the Show yet, but they're both in their primes now and it's not like the Red Sox have better options. Boston needs to know what these guys are capable of, because if they're not everyday players then they'll need to find outfield help fast.
Have a backup plan
Even with the (costly) addition of David Price, Boston's rotation is still loaded with question marks. Buchholz is expected to be the team's second best starter after Price, and he's been one of the most volatile--not to mention injury-prone--pitchers in baseball. Porcello was a major disappointment last year and will be again if he can't keep the ball down. Joe Kelly has potential but seems better suited for the bullpen. Owens and Rodriguez also have potential but just 32 combined major league starts between them, which makes them difficult to count on this year. Roenis Elias and Steven Wright offer depth, but you don't want either one making regular turns. Even Price is a bit risky given the heavy workload he's carried the past six seasons, making him increasingly susceptible to injury as he enters his 30s. It's entirely possible that Boston ends the season with a completely different rotation than the one it starts with, which means the Sox may want to consider shipping out some of their prospects for a proven starter at some point.
Commit to a catcher
Boston is blessed with two young, talented backstops in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Their skillsets are very different, however, as Vazquez is an excellent pitch-framer and potential Gold Glove winner while Swihart is a switch-hitter with Matt Wieters potential. Swihart looks like the better long-term option due to his bat, which improved by leaps and bounds in the second half along with his defense. Boston was in a similar position in 2013, when they had two phenoms at short (Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts)--one of whom was a defensive wizard while the other excelled at the plate--and wound up trading the better fielder (Iglesias) for starting pitching help at the deadline. The Red Sox would be wise to make a similar decision this year, dealing from a position of strength to address their needs. With Ryan Hanigan also in the mix, they'll want to avoid carrying three catchers on their 25-man roster.
Utilize the bullpen effectively
With Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, and Carson Smith at his disposal, John Farrell has a dominant trio of relievers capable of shortening games by several innings. He should not hesitate, however, to use them to get out of jams in the middle innings, rather than save them for late inning save opportunities that may never come. If Boston's going to roll the dice with this iffy rotation, Farrell needs to forego conventional bullpen usage and be aggressive with his firemen by deploying them in high leverage situations (as Joe Maddon does).
This is going to be a big year for the Red Sox, who seem to be at a crossroads with their manager and numerous players. Everyone on the roster has something to prove and a lot of questions need to be answered as the team tries to chart a new course under Dave Dombrowski. Above all, Boston must get back on track after finishing last three of the past four years, if not by making the playoffs this year then by greasing the skids to do so next year. The Sox certainly have the talent to do so; they just need to find a way to make it all work.