Which Red Sox offense will show up in 2016?

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Which Red Sox offense will show up in 2016?

Given their struggles at the plate for most of the 2015 season, it may surprise you to learn that the Red Sox finished fourth among all 30 major-league teams in runs scored.

In all of baseball, only the Toronto Blue Jays (891), New York Yankees (764) and Texas Rangers (751) scored more runs than the Red Sox (748).

That seems implausible, given how mightily the Sox struggled in the first four months of the season. With David Ortiz mired in a slow start and unable to do much against left-handed pitchers, the Red Sox batting order lacked its usual middle-of-the-lineup force.

Worse, Hanley Ramirez's production nosedived after a strong first month, Pablo Sandoval stopped switch-hitting (and was inept against lefties), Shane Victorino battled injuries, Mike Napoli was mired in a slump, and, from early May through the end of June, the catching tandem featured a mix of an overmatched rookie (Blake Swihart) and an offensively challenged journeyman (Sandy Leon).

Over the final two months, however, the offense shifted into gear. Ortiz's bat came alive. Travis Shaw injected some lefty pop. Mookie Betts went on a tear. And Swihart figured some things out at the plate.

The result? The Red Sox, though far out of contention, showed improved starting pitching and better offensive production, yielding a strong seven weeks.

After posting a slash line of .256/.319/.392 through the end of July, the Red Sox came alive offensively in the final two months, with a line of .281/.338/.453.

It was as if the split represented two different teams, which, in a sense, was true -- right down to the manager, with bench coach Torey Lovullo taking over from John Farrell, who was diagnosed with Stage 1 non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt lymphoma, in the middle of August through the remainder of the schedule.

The question for 2016: Which offense will this year's team resemble? The inept bunch from the first four months? Or the more powerful group showcased in the season's final two months?

Among the projected position players, there are no newcomers. Indeed, among those projected to open the season on the major-league roster, only Chris Young wasn't here on the first weekend of last October -- and he's only slated to be a depth outfielder.

Let's start with the returning veterans: Ortiz, Ramirez, Sandoval and Dustin Pedroia.

As established major-leaguers - and all but Ortiz more or less within their chronological prime -- it should be relatively easy to predict their production. But extenuating cirumcstances impact all four.

-- Pedroia was on his way to his strongest offensive season in a number of years, with 9 homers in 69 games and an OPS of .819. But a serious hamstring pull knocked him out of the lineup in June, and he played just 24 games in the second half.

It's impossible to know whether Pedroia can get through a full year without being injured, since each of the last three seasons were compromised by physical challenges.

Last year's first half indicated that Pedroia can still be a dynamic offensive player. The question, however, remains: For how many games?

-- Ramirez started the season well, hitting 10 homers in April and compiling a .999 OPS.

But a collision with an outfield wall in the first week of May sent Ramirez into a downward spiral at the plate. From the start of May through June 18, he hit exactly one homer. And after that injury healed, Ramirez dealt with problems to his other shoulder.

The result? A slash line of .238/.277/.367 from May 1 until his final at-bat of the season on Aug. 26.

In theory, Ramirez should rebound in 2016. He's just 32 and only three years removed from a season in which he posted a 1.040 OPS. But as with almost anything to do with quixotic Ramirez, it's hard to know for certain.

-- Sandoval's first season in Boston was every bit as disappointing as Ramirez's. In some ways -- offensively, at least - it was worse. If Ramirez's .367 post-May slugging percentage was mystifying, what are we to make of the fact that Sandoval had a .366 slugging percentage for the entire season?

He finished with a career-low 10 homers and contributed just 25 doubles. In short, Sandoval failed to regularly drive the ball.

Part of that might be attributed to conditioning -- were it not for the fact that that has been a problem for the portly third baseman for much of his career.

Another issue was his struggles from the right side of the plate, and against lefty pitching in general. Sandoval gave up switch-hitting in the last week of May after starting the season 2-for-41 from the right side.

In time, things got a little better for Sandoval while hitting left-handed against lefty pitching, but he still finished with a putrid .197 average against left-handers for the season.

It's possible Sandoval will be a better offensive player in his second season, having had a year to adjust to a new league, new pitchers and new ballparks. But it's hardly assured.

-- Ortiz finished with a .913 OPS and belted 37 homers, his highest total since 54 in 2006.

But for the first three months, Ortiz struggled mightily, unable to do much damage at all against lefties and generally having an inconsistent plate approach. In time, he figured some things out and was a menace in the second half. But Ortiz will start this season at 40, and if he begins slowly this time -- as he did a year ago and in 2010 and 2011 -- there's no guarantee that he can correct things and reverse course.

It's astonishing that Ortiz performed at such a high level at age 39. But expecting him to follow that up at 40 may be asking too much.

If there are two players the Red Sox needn't worry about, they should be Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. At 23, they're not yet in their prime and expected to make further gains.

It's assumed that Bogaerts, who was limited to just seven homers a year ago, will develop more power. Similarly, Betts hopes for more consistency, avoiding the kind of prolonged slumps that twice derailed him somewhat last season, his first full year in the big leagues.

But uncertainty surrounds two other everyday players - outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo.

Through the first week of August, Bradley spent the majority of the season in Triple-A. When he occasionally got an opportunity to play because of injury or performance issues for others in Boston, hit just .121.

But given a chance to play more regularly after the trade of Victorino, Bradley exploded. In one incredible stretch lasting a month, Bradley hit .446 with a .489 OBP and a .952 slugging percentage.

He hardly seemed like the same player who hit a mere .198 the year before -- or even the one who struggled in the first four months.

Did Bradley stumble upon some magic key in August? Was this an indication of what he was capable of as a hitter?

Those questions grew when he slumped again, hitting just .138 from Sept. 8 until the end of the season.

If Bradley remains an enigma, Castillo is completely unknown, having played 90 major-league games in two seasons.

He's been both inconsistent and injury prone, and few know what to expect of him in 2016.

But Bradley's defensive brilliance and Castillo's inviting athleticism have led the Red Sox to invest them in fully this year -- even if it represents a significant gamble.

"You have to give him that opportunity at some time,'' said President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski recently, "and it's about ready to give to give it to him based upon where he is. He's an all-around player, so we're in a situation where he's going to get the opportunity.''

What he and Bradley do with that chance and what the Red Sox get from the four veterans (Sandoval, Ortiz, Ramirez and Pedroia) will determine whether the uptick shown in August and September was a mirage -- or a sign of things to come.

Jones-Molina WBC spat is a clash of cultures . . . and that's great

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Jones-Molina WBC spat is a clash of cultures . . . and that's great

The Adam Jones-Yadier Molina verbal skirmish is as predictable as it is annoying.

Was every cultural nuance for the 16 World Baseball Classic teams explained in a booklet the players had to memorize before the tournament?

No? Then it’s amazing there weren’t more moments like this.

Jones, the Orioles outfielder, said Team USA's championship game win over Puerto Rico was motivated by Puerto Rico's choice to plan a post-tournament parade for the team before the final game.

As Jones was raised, parades in pro sports are for championship teams. Red Sox fans are likely aware of this.

As Jones was raised, discussing a parade before a title is secured suggests overconfidence. Rex Ryan fans are likely aware of this.

After an 8-0 win for the U.S., Jones revealed the parade was used as bulletin-board material.

"Before the game, we got a note that there was some championship shirts made -- we didn't make 'em -- and a flight [arranged],” Jones said. “That didn't sit well with us. And a parade -- it didn't sit well with us."

But apparently, Jones didn't know the full context of the parade. It was reportedly planned regardless of whether Puerto Rico won.

One Team USA teammate of Jones whom CSNNE spoke with didn't believe that, however.

"It was called a champions parade that got turned into a celebration parade once they lost," the player said. "I think they just don't like getting called out by Jones, but all Jones did was tell exactly what happened."

Jones’ comments weren’t received well.

Puerto Rico's going through a trying time, a recession, and the entire island rallied behind the team.

“Adam Jones . . . is talking about things he doesn't know about," Molina told ESPN’s Marly Rivera. "He really has to get informed because he shouldn't have said those comments, let alone in public and mocking the way [preparations] were made.”

No one should be upset Jones explained what he was thinking.

Jones actually asked MLB Network host Greg Amsinger, “Should I tell the truth?”

Yes. It’s better than lying.

Look at the reactions across the WBC: the bat flips, the raw emotion. Honesty conveyed via body language.

People in the U.S. are starting to accept and crave those reactions. The WBC helped promote a basic idea: let people be themselves.

Jones said what was on his mind. We can’t celebrate bat flips and then say Jones should keep his mouth shut.

But there's an unreasonable expectation being placed on Jones here.

He heard about a parade -- which is to say, a subject he wouldn't normally think twice about or investigate before a championship baseball game.

Plus, it gave him motivation.

Why is Jones, or anyone with Team USA, more responsible for gaining an advance understanding of Puerto Rico’s parade-planning conventions -- we're talking about parade planning! -- than Puerto Rico is responsible for keeping U.S. norms in mind when making and/or talking about those plans?

No one involved here was thinking about the other’s perception or expectation. It's impossible to always do so.

But that’s how these moments develop: what’s obvious to one party is outlandish to the other.

Now Molina, Puerto Rico's catcher, wants an apology.

"He has to apologize to the Puerto Rican people," Molina told ESPN. "Obviously, you wanted to win; he didn't know what this means to [our] people."

Jones can clear the air with an apology, but he doesn't owe one. And he definitely doesn't owe one after Molina took it a step further.

"I'm sending a message to [Jones], saying, 'Look at this, right now you're in spring training working out, and we're with our people, with our silver medals,' " Molina said. "You're in spring training and you're working . . . you have no idea how to celebrate your honors, you don't know what it means.”

Team USA had no parade. Manager Jim Leyland made clear how the U.S. was celebrating, by recognizing those serving the country.

The silver lining here is how much attention the WBC has drawn, and how much conversation it can drive. People care, a great sign for the sport -- and its potential to foster better understanding across cultures.

Internationally, the sport is on parade.

Wright extends scoreless streak to 9 1/3 innings in Red Sox' 10-7 win over Pirates

Wright extends scoreless streak to 9 1/3 innings in Red Sox' 10-7 win over Pirates

The angst surrounding the David Price- and (possibly) Drew Pomeranz-less Red Sox starting rotation may have eased a little -- or a lot -- on Thursday.

Steven Wright extended his string of scoreless spring-training innings to 9 1/3 by blanking the Pirates for 4 1/3 innings in his third spring-traing start, leading the Sox to a 10-7 victory over the Pirates at SkyBlue Park.

Red Sox-Pirates box score

Wright allowed two hits -- the only two hits he's allowed this spring -- with one walk and three strikeouts.

Several of his pitching brethren, notably Heath Hembree and Robbie Ross Jr., didn't fare nearly as well. (See box score above.) But the Sox -- using what may be their regular-season batting order for the first time -- bailed them out with a 16-hit attack, led by Dustin Pedroia (3-for-3, now hitting ,500 for the spring). Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and, yes, Pablo Sandoval each added two hits. Sandoval also drove in three runs and is now hitting .362.

Xander Bogaerts went 1-for-4 in his return to the Sox from the World Baseball Classic.