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For all of the acquisitions and changes the Red Sox made this winter, a great deal of their potential to transform from a back-to-back last-place team back into a contender relies on the ability of their biggest disappointments of a year ago to rebound. Perhaps that fact helps to explain why (as Peter Abraham writes) manager John Farrell, first base coach Ruben Amaro, and mental skills coach Laz Gutierrez made the trip to visit with Hanley Ramirez this week.

The team is investing considerable faith in the idea that one or both will bounce back from their horrific Red Sox debuts in 2016, having passed on any opportunities to deepen its pool of corner infielders to this point of the offseason. Perhaps that approach relates to the consistently positive reports the team has offered about the offseason workout programs of both Ramirez, as he prepares for his transition to first base, and third baseman Pablo Sandoval.

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But for every note of optimism that’s sounded about both players, and about their proximity to consistent track records as above-average or well above-average performers, it’s worth a clear-eyed look at the likelihood that Ramirez and Sandoval haven’t arrived at a career point where their best days are behind them.

While the Red Sox have seen players come to Boston and struggle in their first year, they haven’t seen anything like what Ramirez and Sandoval endured in their first season in Boston during the free agent era. Baseball-Reference.com pegged Ramirez (.249/.291/.426 with incredibly bad defense) as having been valued at a -1.3 WAR, meaning 1.3 wins below replacement level; Sandoval had a -0.9 WAR. Those are the two worst marks by any Red Sox players since 1985.

If Ramirez and Sandoval were in their mid-30s, one bad year would set off sirens. Does the fact that Ramirez is entering his age 32 season and Sandoval will be in his age 29 season ease the concerns around them?

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It’s hard to say, in part because there’s a fairly limited pool of players who a) were in the Ramirez and Sandoval age demographics; b) enjoyed the sort of consistently strong track records of Ramirez and Sandoval prior to their derailments; and c) then had a Wile E. Coyote-style plummet off a cliff. But the lion’s share of evidence involving such players suggests that, as with the Coyote himself, the effort to recover from a descent can prove Sisyphean.

The Sox signed Ramirez after he hit .308/.382/.525 and averaging a whopping 4.5 WAR at ages 29-30 before his age 31 mess of a year. There have been just 14 players who averaged a WAR of 2.0 or better for two consecutive years before posting a WAR of -1.0 or worse at age 30, 31, or 32.
What will Hanley do?
14 players went from 2.0 WAR (or better) average over two years to a -1.0 WAR (or worse) season.
Player Two years before crater Crater Post-crater
Kendrys Morales Ages 29-30 2.3 WAR avg Age 31 -1.0 WAR Age 32 2.4 WAR
Brian McRae Ages 29-30 2.3 WAR avg Age 31 -2.5 WAR Age 32 Out of baseball
Howard Johnson Ages 29-30 2.8 WAR avg Age 31 -1.4 WAR Age 32 0.8 WAR (part-timer)
Brook Jacoby Ages 29-30 3.4 WAR avg Age 31 -1.4 WAR Age 32 0.7 WAR Never played after 32
Bob Oliver Ages 29-30 2.8 WAR avg Age 31 -1.5 WAR Age 32 -0.4 WAR Never played after 32
Derek Bell Ages 28-29 4.0 WAR avg Age 30 -1.4 WAR Age 31 1.7 WAR Cratered again at 32, never played after
Alvin Davis Ages 28-29 3.2 WAR avg Age 30 -1.8 WAR Age 31 -0.4 WAR Never played after 31
Tony Pena Ages 28-29 3.6 WAR avg Age 30 -1.1 WAR Age 31 2.4 WAR
Ted Sizemore Ages 28-29 3.2 WAR avg Age 30 -1.3 WAR Age 31 0.5 WAR (part-timer)
Frank Thomas Ages 28-29 2.7 WAR avg Age 30 -1.7 WAR Age 31 -0.5 WAR Had two more solid years (2.7 WAR avg) at 32-33
Richie Sexson Ages 30-31 3.2 WAR avg Age 32 -1.1 WAR Age 33 -0.1 WAR Never played after 33
Jim Piersall Ages 30-31 4.0 WAR avg Age 32 -1.0 WAR Age 33 -1.4 WAR Had one more good year as a part-timer (2.0 WAR) at age 34
Travis Jackson Ages 30-31 3.1 WAR avg Age 32 -1.2 WAR Age 33 Out of baseball
Billy Urbanski Ages 30-31 3.0 WAR avg Age 32 -2.3 WAR Age 33 0.3 WAR
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com

Of those, just one (Kendrys Morales, who went from a 2.3 WAR at ages 29-30 to a -1.0 WAR at age 31 to a 2.4 WAR for last year’s Royals at age 32) returned to something approximating his performance in the two years that preceded his struggle. Two of the players (Morales and Tony Pena) posted a 2.0 WAR or better the season after their “crater” year, making them worthy of everyday roles.

But the vast majority of players in the Ramirez demographic performed the year after their “crater” at just above or below replacement level, and a shocking half (7 of 14) of the players experienced such extreme skill erosion that they never played beyond their age 33 season. Players like Brian McRae and Alvin Davis and Richie Sexson and Brook Jacoby endured sudden and irreversible descents from their place as quality everyday players, quickly finding themselves without teams.

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In theory, the outlook should be slightly better for Sandoval (.245/.292/.366 in 2015) given that he’s younger than Ramirez and his performance (as measured by WAR) wasn’t quite as horrendous as that of his teammate. And it is. But the fact that the forecast isn’t as dark as it is for Ramirez is like saying there’s a 75 rather than an 85 percent chance of rain.

Of the 19 players who followed two straight years of 2.0 WAR or better with a -0.5 WAR or worse in their age 27, 28, or 29 seasons, five (Jim Wynn, Paul Konerko, Tony Piet, Ken Landreaux, and Tony Armas) delivered a 2.0 WAR or better the following season, with two more (Jeffrey Leonard and Carlos Baerga) posting WARs of 1.0 or better. (Aside No. 1: Wynn was an amazing player. Aside No. 2: While Leonard’s post-crater WAR peaked at 1.5, he did deliver a memorable performance two years after the crater in the 1987 NLCS, when his four homers and “one flap down” circumnavigation of the bases became the talk of much of the series.) Ten players had a WAR that was below 1.0 in the season after they cratered – and of those, the vast majority consisted of little more than fringe contributors for the rest of their careers.
Can Sandoval bounce back?
19 players went from a 2.0 WAR (or better) average over two years to a -0.5 WAR (or worse) season at age 27, 28, or 29
Player Two years before crater Crater Post-crater
Melvin Upton Ages 26-27 3.0 WAR avg Age 28 -1.6 WAR Age 29 -0.5 WAR (Had a decent bounceback in part-time role at 30)
Khalil Greene Ages 26-27 3.0 WAR avg Age 28 -0.5 WAR Age 29 -0.8 WAR Out of baseball at 30
Felix Jose Ages 26-27 2.4 WAR avg Age 28 -0.6 WAR Age 29 0.8 WAR Journeyman starting at 30
Greg Luzanski Ages 26-27 4.7 WAR avg Age 28 -1.3 WAR Age 29 0.4 WAR Averaged 2.5 WAR from ages 30-32 as a DH
Allen Craig Ages 27-28 2.2 WAR avg Age 29 -1.2 WAR Age 30 -0.7 WAR
Tony Batista Ages 27-28 2.6 WAR avg Age 29 -0.5 WAR Age 30 -0.2 WAR Never again had a positive WAR season
Jeffrey Leonard Ages 27-28 3.4 WAR avg Age 29 -0.9 WAR Age 30 1.5 WAR Never again exceeded 1.5 WAR - though threw the flap down at age 31
Ken Landreaux Ages 27-28 3.2 WAR avg Age 29 -1.3 WAR Age 30 2.1 WAR Role dwindled at ages 31-32; out of baseball by 33
Tony Armas Ages 27-28 3.2 WAR avg Age 29 -0.9 WAR Age 30 2.6 WAR Quickly downhill after 30
Cleon Jones Ages 27-28 3.5 WAR avg Age 29 -0.8 WAR Age 30 -0.4 WAR One-year bounceback at 31 (1.6 WAR) but then basically done
Jim Wynn Ages 27-28 6.0 WAR avg Age 29 -0.6 WAR Age 30 5.5 WAR Had a terrible year in the aftermath of divorce; bounced back to dominant form
Paul Konerko Ages 25-26 2.2 WAR avg Age 27 -0.6 WAR Age 28 2.3 WAR
Carlos Baerga Ages 25-26 2.6 WAR avg Age 27 -1.4 WAR Age 28 1.1 WAR Marginal journeyman thereafter
Ruben Sierra Ages 25-26 4.1 WAR avg Age 27 -1.7 WAR Age 28 0.2 WAR Mostly negative WAR player after that
Mitchell Page Ages 25-26 4.2 WAR avg Age 27 -0.6 WAR Age 28 0.9 WAR Marginal player for a few years thereafter
Wes Covington Ages 25-26 3.0 WAR avg Age 27 -0.5 WAR Age 28 -0.5 WAR Mostly negative WARs after
Eddie Joost Ages 25-26 2.6 WAR avg Age 27 -0.6 WAR Age 28 Did not play (war) Averaged 4.0 WAR from ages 31-36
Tony Piet Ages 25-26 2.2 WAR avg Age 27 -0.6 WAR Age 28 2.1 WAR
Jake Stahl Ages 25-26 2.6 WAR avg Age 27 -0.5 WAR Age 28 Out of baseball Ages 29-31, 3.3 WAR average
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com

The outlook for Sandoval becomes slightly more promising when considering that three players (Greg Luzinski, Jake Stahl, and Eddie Joost) enjoyed three or more years as 2.0 WAR players at least two years after their crater seasons. (Neither Joost nor Stahl played the year after they cratered, but when back on the field, they excelled. Luzinski had a second straight bad year at age 29 before a strong age 30-32 performance – albeit one where he was about half as valuable as his age 26-27 heights.)

In short, the small sample of players in the classes of Ramirez and Sandoval suggests that the odds are against either player enjoying a bounceback to their pre-Red Sox levels in 2016. The odds that both of them will do so, at least based on the limited precedents, thus appear remote.

The team’s willingness to stay with in-house candidates like Travis Shaw, Sam Travis, Brock Holt, Allen Craig (himself part of the evidence for players who failed to crawl out of a late-20s crater), and Deven Marrero as its insurance options thus represents a potentially significant risk and roster vulnerability. As much as the Red Sox have seemed comfortable with their roster, intrigue about whether they might explore the market for more established corner infield fallbacks between now and the start of spring training is thus unavoidable.

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