Comradery has seemed to develop quickly among the Red Sox’ two biggest off-season acquisitions and the face of the franchise, Big Papi. Dubbing themselves the “Three Amigos”, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval seem to be welcome as personalities but who will make the biggest impact for the 2015 Sox?
For Ramirez this year is a homecoming of a particular variety. In addition to uniting with Ortiz, who he says is like “his big brother”, the veteran shortstop returns to the team that first signed him back in 2000. A highly-rated prospect, he was traded after appearing in only two major league games to the then-Florida, now-Miami Marlins in the deal that brought Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston. During his first five seasons with the Marlins he was one of the premier shortstops in baseball averaging 26 HR’s per season between 2007-2010 with a stunning .318 batting average. But by the 2011 and 2012 seasons, partially due to nagging shoulder and elbow injuries Ramirez saw a drop-off in production and a subsequent position change to 3B with the addition of Jose Reyes. In July of 2012 he was traded to the Dodgers where both his AVG and OPS saw significant decline.
So with a possibly HOF career derailed by a variety of injuries (and returning from them too soon…), will the 2010 NL batting champ be able to return to some part of his former glory?
There are those that believe his production problems were more mental than physical, especially in his final LA season that served as the first “contract year” of his career. He seems happy to be back in Boston, having reached out to the Sox for the move, rather than the other way around. With a position switch from IF to OF, will the reduced pressure and increased comradery be enough to get the All-Star back to .300 BA, 20+ HR range? The potential is exciting. Ramirez hitting in the cleanup spot behind David Ortiz? I think I’ve heard this tune before and I think I like it.
The man known as Kung-Fu Panda said earlier this week that the decision to leave the only team he’s played for in his 7-yr professional career wasn’t a difficult one, given the lack of effort the Giants front office reportedly made early in their contract discussions:
“I knew early in spring training last year I was going to leave,” Sandoval said. “They didn’t respect my agent. Contract talks, everything… It is not about money. It is about how you treat the player.”
Panda’s clubhouse influence has been quickly felt in Spring Training, bringing both his infectious laughter and his veteran wisdom to a place that he says already feels like home. It’s difficult to say why San Francisco was willing to let their relationship with the 2-time All-Star erode but it would seem that the Sox will be actively reaping the benefits. Critics point to a statistical decline over Panda’s last three San Fran seasons, with a .280 average over that span, compared to the .330 and .315 he hit in 2009 and 2011, respectively. And while his SLG has likewise taken a hit – .416 avg over the last two seasons, as compared to .556 and .552 in the years mentioned above – proponents believe these stat changes represent more a return to the true mean than a steady decline, even forecasting an upturn given his move to a hitter’s park. Perhaps weighing heavier in San Francisco’s decision to let the career Giant explore greener pastures was a number of a non-statistical variety. Much has been made of Sandoval’s weight throughout his career, most famously in the offseason leading into the 2011 season when the Giants’ launched “Operation Panda”, a full workout and PR campaign designed to slim the slugger down through intense public focus. Boston’s media has certainly not been shy in their own focus on the subject, but both coach and front office have spoken publicly about their lack of a) surprise and b) concern over the third baseman’s weight, with Cherington saying:
“Pablo is always going to look like Pablo, you know? You’re going to notice him when he walks on the field. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. But there are no concerns on our end at this point as to whether he’s going to be where he needs to be in spring training and on Opening Day.”
It’s also important to note that the only two injuries Panda sustained during his time in San Fran were to the hamate bone in his hand, obviously unrelated to his weight.
It is a near-certainty that Panda will move out of his prime during the course of the 5-year contract he just signed but at 28 years old the likelihood is high that he has several very good/All-Star seasons left to play. Perhaps the biggest impact factor when it comes to Sandoval is the mark he makes in October. His career playoff batting average of .344 is an MLB record, his .426 World Series avg is second only to now-teammate David Ortiz (.455) and he is one of only four players to hit three HR’s in a single World Series game (the others: Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols). His bat has been instrumental in all three of the Giants’ recent championships and nowhere do they value a clutch postseason hitter more than in Boston. Also as any Boston fan knows, within each of the Sox recent championship runs was an x-factor, an unknown element, a je ne sais quoi that developed when the players remembered their love for the game and that the team was always bigger than any one of them. It’s why Manny eventually had to be sent packing and it’s why Beckett and those asses destroyed the last remnants of a once-great legacy. Pablo Sandoval’s biggest impact may be of just this particular variety, a hunger to be part of something great, and a desire for fun that can only properly develop once you’ve worked hard enough to be at the top of your game. I see him thriving in the Bean’s sports-thirsty market, quickly rising as a 2015 fan favorite. Only a few months into his Sox career he reached out to a local hero, Chris Laudani, the guy who shoveled off the Boston Marathon finish line during the recent Snow-pocalypse, asking him to be his personal guest at opening day. I think Boston’s going to like Panda.
So while both Ramirez and Sandoval are making the move from pitcher-friendly to hitter-friendly home fields (AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium are ranked #25 and #27 on ESPN’s hitter-friendly stadiums), a change that I think Ramirez will benefit from most, Panda will ultimately make the biggest impact for the 2015 Sox, with on-field numbers that are improved (though not dramatically) over his final San Fran stretch and, more importantly, a clubhouse influence that helps to build a new, strong team identity.
Though they were certainly the biggest acquisitions of the Red Sox’ offseason, Ramirez and Sandoval are not the only new faces in Fort Myers. Ramirez isn’t even the only ex-Red Sox looking to make an impact as Justin Masterson returns to the team that drafted him. Having contributed well in 2008-9 with a 3.83 era over 17 starts, the Jamaican pitcher was traded to Cleveland as part of the Victor Martinez deal where he saw a steady rise in both strikeouts and wins but was ultimately derailed with oblique and knee injuries. Seeing potential in that tragedy, the Sox resigned him this offseason to a one-year deal worth $9.5M (plus incentives) where he’ll take the 4 or 5 spot in a work-horse rotation. Though it’s only Spring ball, Masterson has let up just one hit through 5 innings of work this preseason, including three perfect innings against the Rays on Tuesday. Can a healthy iteration of the side-armer get back to the success that saw him take home 14 wins in 2013 with nearly 200 K’s?
Former Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello could be the biggest surprise to many Sox fans as Farrell and co. believe he has the potential to steal the #1 spot away from Buchholz before the season starts. Acquired in the Yeonis Cespedes trade in December, Porcello represents a one-year rental and that contract motivation should prove beneficial for both the 26-year-old pitcher and the team as he will look to top his 15-win total from last season. If he’s as successful as many think he can be in 2015, will he return and resign with Boston long-term? For now, the only focus is on the field, says Porcello, not on contracts as this year’s starters play the rotating game of “He’s the Ace“.
It’s certainly an exciting year to be a Sox fan, seeing some of the holes in last year’s squad filled by once and future All-Stars. GM Ben Cherington was anything but passive this offseason, adding valuable commodities, each with their own something to prove, each with the very real potential to reach some of their highest levels of personal success in 2015. My money’s on Panda but which new acquisition do YOU think will have the biggest impact on the 2015 Red Sox?