One of the most prevalent narratives that hung around the Red Sox this season was the idea that the team was underperforming. At their best – specifically, that eight-game win streak during the first week of August – they looked the part of serious contender. Christian Vazquez was hitting walkoff homers, Chris Sale was striking out 13 guys over 8 innings and the Red Sox were living their best lives. You know the rest: they played well enough to win the division – though it got a little hairy there at the end – and were beaten pretty decisively in the ALDS for the second straight year. Winning a division title is a strong argument for considering the season a success, but the performance from this team’s core players left fans (and from the sound of Dombrowski’s season-ending press conference, the organization, apparently) wishing for more. It’s a not-insignificant part of the reason they fired John Farrell – there’s clearly a feeling around Fenway that the team can get more from these players. If the Red Sox have higher aspirations than “underwhelming ALCS performance”, then these players are going to have to be better. Who needs a bounce-back season the most?
5. Mookie Betts
Mookie comes in at the bottom of the list because he doesn’t really need to have a better season next year. It’d be lovely if he did, but hitting .264/.344/.459 with a 108 wRC+, .276 TAv, and 5.9 WARP would be just fine. He’s still one of the best defensive right fielders and most dynamic baserunners in baseball, which help cover for a slight dip in offensive production. Betts has several million financial reasons to play better, though, as he’s arbitration eligible for the first time in 2018. Even an identical season next year wouldn’t do that much damage to his market value, but being closer to 2016 Mookie than 2017 Mookie certainly wouldn’t hurt. 30-homer-hitting Betts does wonders for the watching experience, but not having that isn’t going to sink their season. There are bigger fish to fry.
4. David Price
Given the way Price ended the year – 6.2 innings of brilliant relief pitching – it seems like his very public beefs with Dennis Eckersly and Evan Drellich were a lifetime ago (although I’m sure Eck and Evan may feel differently). Year 2 of the David Price experience wasn’t any smoother than Year 1, as the elbow injury lingered over his entire season. Price is not expected to need any more work done on the elbow and will presumably return next spring as the team’s #2 starter. He’s gotten a taste of the John Lackey Redemption Tour, so it’s possible that proving himself to the Red Sox fans may be on the front of his mind next year. It’s also very possible (and reasonable) that it won’t be. There’s no doubt in my mind that Price is keenly aware of the opt-out clause in his contract that triggers after the 2018 season. Whether Price wants to continue endearing himself to the Fenway Faithful or make the best of his year-long audition to the other 29 MLB teams, Price has all the incentive in the world to improve next year.
3. Jackie Bradley Jr.
This time was always going to come. As long as the Red Sox have had the luxury of their outfield overflowing with young, exciting, talent, the idea that one of them was destined to be traded has been around. At this point, we know what JBJ is. He’s going to to look like the best centerfielder not named Mike Trout for small portions of the season that are sandwiched between usually longer stretches where he looks pretty average. The good news is that he kept the strikeouts down; his strikeout rate hovered right at league average for the second straight season. The bad news is that the power disappeared last season, as his ISO and SLG plummeted. Considering Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi are just about as untradeable as any given player can be, that leaves JBJ as the odd man out. He’s 27, so his value is about as high as it’s going to get. Given that he gets through the season without being shipped off to Cincinnati or Miami, a strong year would go a long way towards convincing the Red Sox he’s still an important part of the core.
2. Hanley Ramirez
You could convince me that no one has more to prove next season than Hanley Ramirez purely because he’s the only one on this list whose employment may count on it. Here are some relevant facts: come next spring, Ramirez will be a 34-year-old defensive liability who is coming off his third shoulder surgery and clearly declining at the plate. Like I said last week, how the team decides to handle Ramirez will be one of the defining narratives of the offseason. He had one of the worst years of his career across the board, and there’s not a lot positive precedent for aging sluggers with nagging injuries that zap power. If Hanley gets off to another slow start, the team’s going to have a hard time keeping his bat in the order. He earned some goodwill back when he turned back the clock during the ALDS, but if the Red Sox are going to get replacement-level play from Ramirez next year, it’s time to look for someone else.
1. Xander Bogaerts
This one stings, because all-in-all, Bogaerts hasn’t been that bad. He was a slightly-below average offensive player this year, but it was pretty clear that he was limited by injuries for most of the season. Still, with the way that 2016 ended, it’s now been about a calendar year’s worth of average baseball from Bogaerts. Between 2014 and 2016, he was one of the best hitting shortstops in baseball. The slumps are brutal, though, and with each passing season the idea of his power reaching that ceiling seems less and less likely. He’s only 25, which is 1. hard to believe, because it feels like he’s been around forever and 2. a reminder that there are plenty of great days ahead of him. Even if he never becomes the middle-of-the-order power bat like he projected to be, hitting .320/.355/.421 (2015) with his glove would be phenomenal. Hitting 21 homers (2016) would also be phenomenal. Put those together and I’ll never write another bad word about him again. But the “trade him while he still has value” whispers are only going to get louder with another underwhelming year, and it seems like he’s reaching a crossroads in his career faster than any of the other core members.
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