NASHVILLE — Roam around the lobby of this very large Gaylord Opryland Hotel and one of the most popular conversations from baseball people when they see someone from Boston involves Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.
"What are they going to do with those guys?" asked one American League GM. "They have a nice team, but then you have the problems at the corners."
A roll of the eyes is the normal reaction on Ramirez. The feeling about him is nearly universal. "Don't want him on my team," said one American league evaluator about Ramirez.
When we asked around about whether the Red Sox could move Ramirez, not one person said yes. The Red Sox have come to find out there is no escape. He's all theirs. They have to hope for one of three things: Ramirez puts in the work to be a serviceable first baseman and that he doesn't destroy the infield defense; that he stays healthy enough to produce at the plate and mirror the April he had before he hurt his shoulder; or that later this winter a team is desperate enough to have a need for a DH.
If Dave Dombrowski can move him, he'll win executive of the year hands down.
Dombrowski probably never would have signed Ramirez or Sandoval, but this is what he inherited.
Dombrowski has publicly said all of the right things, hoping to turn their respective careers around and/or to help increase value or interest. He told both players they had to lose at least 20 pounds. Imagine having to tell two players with contracts of that size (they are owed a combined $141 million) that you're not in shape? Do these guys have any pride?
We've heard this offseason about how great Ramirez looks now that he's working out with David Ortiz. We've heard that Sandoval "was embarrassed" by his season, which was the worst of his major league career. We heard Ramirez talk up learning to play left field last season and then fail to do the work. We've heard how much he'll embrace first base and well, until he does it, how can you believe it?
We've heard from one former Sox teammate who used to keep three of his buttons undone on his jersey, but because Ramirez did the same thing he decided to button up because he didn't want to be linked with Ramirez.
There's always the scenario that both players fall in line and give you their average major league performances. If Ramirez is healthy and hits the way he's supposed to, he could certainly be an effective offensive player. Even if he stays healthy part of the year, is this someone you want replacing Ortiz as the DH in 2017?
Sandoval is different.
He has to get in shape. He had his worst defensive and offensive season in 2015. He gave up switch-hitting because he was so bad from the right side. This is a guy who helped the Giants win three World Series. His postseason résumé is impeccable. Big hits. Big moments. There was no other hitter on the planet that you wanted up in a World Series game needing a big hit. What happened to that guy?
Was it the new league or the pressure of a big contract? Was he trying too hard to show his former team that he had been worth keeping? Add to all of that the insult of having his replacement, Matt Duffy, contend for National League Rookie of the Year?
Dombrowski said he doesn't expect Sandoval to come in svelte, but does expect he'll come in lighter. Ramirez needs to lose the bulk that turned him into a tight end/linebacker. He needs to be more limber; be able to bend down for low throws and scoops. If he doesn't, the infielders will rebel.
"We need them to produce, there's no doubt about that," manager John Farrell said. "And talking to both guys, they're working extremely hard right now to get back to the years of performance that they've had in the past.
"I know Pablo is very conscious of and has expressed disappointment in the way things turned out last year," Farrell added. "I think we expected more, and certainly need more, from them to get to the level we envision ourselves, and that's to contend for a World Series."
The Red Sox nixed winter ball for Ramirez. They also have no idea when he plans to report for spring training so he can begin to be a first baseman.
"Whether or not he reports to camp early is to be determined," Farrell said. "We've been focusing on the physical needs that he has. That was the shoulder, low back, hamstring. Those are markers that are very detailed in the physical workout planned for him. So we're confident that he's making progress along those lines. We've resolved the winter ball issue, knowing that the physical foundation is the priority."
Farrell was asked if there were any factors that limited Ramirez offensively after April and that reduced his ability to play left field at an adequate level. Farrell blamed injuries.
"I don't know that he ever got comfortable in [left field], and while he was in that phase trying to get his legs underneath him as a left fielder, he collides with the wall. I think that had a lingering effect on his work in the outfield. I can understand that. The impact he had with the wall that day was substantial, and I think that the constant focus on the defensive side of things and maybe that not happening as naturally as we felt, might have taken away from the offensive side of things a little bit," Farrell explained.
The baggage Ramirez carries as a difficult teammate can only be erased by a monster offensive season. The Red Sox' lineup seemed to excel after both Ramirez and Sandoval went down. Travis Shaw got a good look at first and third and impressed everyone with his sweet stroke and attitude.
Maybe Ramirez, in particular, can turn the tide if he starts to "get it." You could definitely project Sandoval having a better season.
"Both, I think, will come in in better physical condition to maintain a level of performance deeper into the season. But I think, most importantly, they've lived Boston for one year, and they know the potential distractions that could be there and to remain focused on what they can control, and that is their work ethic, their preparation, and how they execute inside the lines." Farrell said.
Good luck with that.