'Do better': With or without J.D. Martinez, these Red Sox need to step it up in 2018

Even if Boston adds a big bat before spring training, it won't be enough unless a sometimes ice-cold offense bounces back from a down year in 2017. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Two offseasons ago, the Boston Red Sox paid a steep price for a marquee free agent to fill a positional need born out of not having replaced a cornerstone player who left the team some 15 months earlier.

Here we are again.

In many ways, the Red Sox's predicament with J.D. Martinez is similar to the chain of events that led them to David Price's door. And although team president Dave Dombrowski appears to be holding firm in his stare-down with agent Scott Boras, the situation with Martinez might be resolved in much the same way as Price's.

A brief refresher: The Red Sox entered the winter of 2015-16 in need of an ace after low-balling Jon Lester with a $70 million extension offer, trading him away, getting outbid by the Chicago Cubs in an attempt to sign him as a free agent and going a full season without a No. 1 starter. Dombrowski labeled top-end pitching as the priority and bought Price with a seven-year, $217 million contract.

These days, the Sox still need a middle-of-the-order power hitter to replace the retired David Ortiz. They took a pass last winter on Edwin Encarnacion, who signed for three years and $60 million with the Cleveland Indians, and finished last in the American League in home runs. And now, they need a truckload of cash to sign Martinez, far and away the best slugger in the market, with Boras reportedly seeking a contract in the neighborhood of seven years and $210 million.

Both sides are doing the usual posturing. Boras has billed Martinez as the "King Kong of Slug" and put him in a class with Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton. Dombrowski has maintained that the Sox would be content to go into the season with what they have, even though their only offseason move has been to re-sign first baseman Mitch Moreland.

"I think we'll get something [to aid the offense]," Dombrowski said recently without a trace of urgency. "I'll be surprised if we don't get something done at some point."

But what if it doesn't involve Martinez? The drop-off to the next tier of free-agent hitters -- Logan Morrison, Carlos Gonzalez, even Jay Bruce -- is steep, and the trade chips within the farm system have been diminished by deals for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Thornburg and Chris Sale.

"I look for some of our own people to do better this year from an offensive perspective," Dombrowski said. "I think it's important, no matter who we add, that some of the people internally have to bounce back and have the years we think they can have. And I think they will."

The boss is looking at you, Xander Bogaerts. You too, Hanley Ramirez. Even you, Mookie Betts.

Should the Red Sox really expect to get more from those players? Or is it merely wishful thinking?

Bogaerts: Getting healthy

How much was Bogaerts impacted by a bruised right hand? The numbers paint a clear picture.

Before he got drilled by a Jake Faria fastball on July 6, Bogaerts was hitting .308/.361/.455 with 20 doubles, four triples and six home runs in 312 at-bats. After the HBP, he batted .232/.321/.340 with 12 doubles, two triples and four homers in 259 at-bats.

Bogaerts missed only one game and admirably never asked to go on the disabled list. In hindsight, the Red Sox should have put him there anyway.

Perhaps that explains why the average launch angle on Bogaerts' swing slid to 8.2 degrees, according to Statcast, from 11.3 degrees in his 21-homer 2016 season. But Bogaerts also has hit 46.7 percent of batted balls on the ground since 2014. Combine that with his high percentage of infield popups (13.5 percent), and it's clear there's room for improvement under new hitting coach Tim Hyers, with whom Bogaerts worked early in his career.

"He hit that ball to right-center off Charlie Morton for a homer [in Game 4 of the division series]. That's not easy to do," new manager Alex Cora said. "For Xander to stay back and drive that ball to right-center, that's a positive. I remember that swing, and he can do that. Just make sure he puts himself in a position to do that, and I think he can do that."

Ramirez: Staying motivated

Since he signed an $88 million contract with the Red Sox, Ramirez has sandwiched one superb season (2016) between two poor ones, with the downturns largely attributable to injuries and attitude.

A $22 million carrot dangling in front of Ramirez's face might mitigate those issues this year.

Ramirez's 2019 option will vest if he accumulates at least 497 plate appearances. Reaching that threshold isn't entirely within his control. If the Sox sign Martinez, it's possible Ramirez will be relegated to a platoon role that would limit his playing time.

But if Martinez goes elsewhere, there's little denying the Red Sox will need Ramirez to do more with his at-bats than last year, when he hit .242 with 23 homers and a .750 OPS, numbers that were at least somewhat impacted by a season-long battle with sore shoulders.

"The last impression I have of him were really good at-bats in October, and he was motivated," Cora said. "He's a guy, when healthy and with motivation, he can be dangerous."

Betts: Finding consistency

As the most talented and dynamic of the holdovers, Betts has the ability to make the greatest impact. And while it's probably unfair to hold him to the standard he set in 2016, his near-MVP performance during that season represents the heights of what he can do.

By his admission, Betts was too erratic last year. He batted .280 with an .846 OPS through the end of June, then hit only .234 with a .678 OPS in July and August. He led the Red Sox with 24 homers but hit only one in a 45-game span from July 17 through Sept. 6.

Still, if Betts' 2017 numbers represent a down year, the Red Sox will gladly take it again. Cora envisions Betts as a leadoff hitter and believes he can have the same impact at the top of the lineup that George Springer did for the Astros.

"Hopefully better, right?" Cora said. "You put a guy like Mookie, that with one swing he can hit one off the wall or over the wall, it's 1-0 us or a man on second with no outs. I think that's important. He can do a lot of stuff also running the bases. I'm looking forward to it."