How will the Red Sox lineup change post-David Ortiz?

Oct 10, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) stands on deck in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the 2016 ALDS playoff baseball series at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 10, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) stands on deck in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the 2016 ALDS playoff baseball series at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox led the major leagues in runs scored in 2016, how will their lineup change following the retirement of their greatest offensive threat?

David Ortiz isn’t the best player in Red Sox history, but he’s been the most important. Since his curse-breaking performance in the 2004 ALCS, he’s been single-handedly responsible for changing the culture and attitude of one of baseball’s most important franchise. Before Ortiz, fans wondered how the Red Sox would lose. After Ortiz, they wondered how they could win. Without him, the Red Sox don’t have three World Series banners in the last 13 years and that’s indisputable. To say that his retirement has left a void in the team’s lineup would be an understatement.

Mookie Betts was the team’s best all-around player in 2016 and more than deserving of finishing second in AL MVP voting. But David Ortiz was the team’s best hitter, by a landslide. His 162 OPS+ was 31 points higher than Betts’ (131), he led the team in home runs (38), runs batted in (127), on-base (.401) and slugging percentage (.620). Replacing Ortiz’s production was and is an impossible task, which the front office was well aware of going into the offseason. If they thought any of the power bats on the market could come close, Chris Sale wouldn’t have been their only big ticket acquisition.

With pitchers and catchers reporting on February 14th, the team’s biggest concern moving into Spring Training has to be their clean-up spot. With three Cy Young candidates at the top of their rotation and a bullpen that is impressively deep, pitching won’t be a problem for this team.

There’s also the probability that Pablo Sandoval will be the team’s starting third baseman, but they managed with Travis Shaw’s 88 OPS+ at the hot corner last season. If Pablo falters again, the team can always look for outside help at a replacement level cost. Or even Sam Travis if they think his defense can hold up at the position.

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What they won’t find for cheap, is a power bat capable of slotting into the four hole in their lineup. At least not until the trade deadline. What the Red Sox need most out of their clean-up hitter is someone that will terrify opposing pitchers enough to pitch to Mookie Betts. However much conventional wisdom and stats clash on the topic of lineup protection, players and managers still account for it and Mookie will need it. He’s the team’s best player now; the lineup will go as he goes.

Assuming Betts hits third, who on the team is imposing enough to intimidate opposing pitchers? Hanley Ramirez, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi are all potential candidates – but none are a sure thing to exceed in that spot.

Benintendi, baseball’s number one prospect, is expected to start the season behind Pedroia in the two-hole. Bradley had an impressive campaign, hitting 26 home runs with 87 RBI, but also struck out 143 times and posted an anemic .665 OPS against left-handed pitching. Bogaerts looked capable in the first half, but his second half slide and comfortability hitting second or third likely rules him out. That leaves Hanley Ramirez.

It’s fitting that Hanley is next in line to take over the clean-up spot as he credits Ortiz, his fellow Dominican, with changing his career. He had a big season last year, posting a 127 wRC+ out of the five-hole mostly, which the Red Sox will need a lot more of in 2017. A welcomed surprise following the disaster of a season he had in 2015, Hanley’s 30 bombs and 111 RBI made him part of the first Red Sox trio (along with Betts and Ortiz) to hit 30 or more HR and 100 or more RBI in franchise history.

The problem with Hanley is that however good his 2016 season was, it’s hard to predict how consistent he’ll be year over year. Last year was the first time he eclipsed 30 home runs since 2008, the only other time he approached that milestone was in 2012 when he had 24. It should also be noted that his resurgent power came during a league-wide spike in home runs that no one can seem to explain.

Then there are his problems with injuries and handedness splits. While injuries are always a valid concern with Hanley (he’s had just two full seasons since 2011), the addition of Mitch Moreland should ease the strain put on his body. There is the possibility that Hanley still sees some time at first as part of a platoon, but he’ll most likely be the team’s full-time DH. We saw how much he benefited from playing a less-demanding position last year, that should ring true again in 2017.

Despite his career resurgence, Ramirez only posted a 110 wRC+ against righties last season – 76 points lower than his mark against lefties. His underlying numbers don’t inspire much confidence either. He still makes contact against righties, with just a 1.5% increase in his strikeout rate, but his home run rate drops significantly. His 33.3% home run/fly ball rate against southpaws is practically cut in half (17.4%) when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound.

Part of the long-list of attributes that made Ortiz so dangerous in the cleanup spot last season was his ability to hit regardless of the pitcher on the mound. Based on his track record, there won’t be many right-handed pitchers unwilling to throw around Mookie Betts to face Ramirez.

Next: What is Andrew Benintendi's potential?

Asking Hanley to replicate what Ortiz did last season, which was the by all accounts the best season ever in a player’s final year, is impossible. Their lineup is full of good hitters, but only the potential for a few great ones. The Red Sox will need Hanley Ramirez to be one of them in 2017.