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Alex Speier

To keep up with Yankees, Red Sox could use a few bounce-back years

Carson Smith had Tommy John surgery in May of 2015. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The reality of a Yankees team featuring Giancarlo Stanton dawned with his introduction at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on Monday. Yet as the Red Sox squinted at that glare, they did so while insisting that they need to hold the offseason wheel steady rather than swerving from their course.

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said that his winter shopping list remains unchanged. His team’s focus remains on adding a middle-of-the-order bat at first base or designated hitter. The team is “not prioritizing pitching,” Dombrowski said.

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Even while major league sources suggest that the Sox are exploring other avenues for potential upgrade – starting with potential infield depth given the uncertainty of Dustin Pedroia’s future health, and with pitching (preferably a lefthanded bullpen option) behind that – the Sox are looking at adding a slugger before making other moves, not wanting to compromise resources to bolster one area before making a move for their primary need.

Beyond that, while Dombrowski suggested that the Sox will make other complementary moves, he believes that much of his team’s outlook will not be changed by transactions but instead by steps forward from returning players.

“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,” he said.

Internal improvement is a fairly compelling counter to another team’s blockbuster. A year ago, when the Yankees sat out the Sox’ pursuit of Chris Sale, New York seemed destined for a bridge year of modest expectations. Instead, the leaps forward by players like Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, and Aaron Hicks, and even veterans CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner, turned the Yankees into an emerging force that reached Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

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Red Sox executives acknowledge that the landscape of the AL East looks very different with Stanton in pinstripes. That said, they’re far from willing to concede the division, noting that a team that saw its 2017 blueprint getting crumpled nonetheless managed to win 93 games and the AL East with a number of performances that fell short of expectations.

Here are a few Red Sox players who seem pivotal in determining whether the Sox will be able to emerge from the shadow cast by the Stanton move:

DAVID PRICE: Reminder: While pitching for four teams in three years from 2014 to 2016, Price ranked among the handful of the most dominant starters in the game. According to Fangraphs, he was worth 16.9 Wins Above Replacement, fourth highest among all starters – just ahead of Chris Sale. In 2017, injuries dropped him from 230 to just 74 2/3 innings.

If Price rebounds to something approaching career norms – both in durability and dominance – the upgrade will be considerable. While much has been made (quite rightly) of the lefthanded-heavy Red Sox rotation, Price has the ability to blow up righthanded hitters with his fantastic cutter – a critical consideration against a Yankees lineup that features Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and switch-hitter Aaron Hicks. He can transform the look of the Red Sox against dominant offenses. His re-emergence would represent one of the biggest upgrades the Red Sox could achieve this winter – perhaps even exceeding the addition of whatever bat they acquire.

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CARSON SMITH: According to a major league source, the Red Sox did not make an aggressive run at righthander Pat Neshek before he reached a reported two-year, $16.5 million deal with the Phillies. While Neshek is one of the game’s most effective pitchers against righties, the Sox 1) didn’t want to use money that they may need for a bat at this stage of the offseason and 2) believe that Smith – who has held righties to a .187/.264/.253 line in his career – can give them one of the best right-on-right options in the game.

“You’ve got Carson Smith there, as effective a guy as there is in baseball versus righthanders,” said Dombrowski. “He’s a different motion, a lot of sliders, sinkers. So we do have somebody that is like that too that’s really effective versus righthanded hitters.”

Smith showed considerable promise in his late-season return to the big leagues following his mid-2016 Tommy John surgery, but he spoke on multiple occasions how he expected to have another gear in 2018 following a healthy offseason. Given the wealth of righthanded sluggers in the AL East, the health of Smith and Joe Kelly (.191/.229/.279 vs. righties in 2017) represents a difference-maker.

HANLEY RAMIREZ: A full year of Rafael Devers should upgrade the team’s production over two months of Devers and four months of a merry-go-round set in motion by Pablo Sandoval’s lack of production. Andrew Benintendi is expected to take a step forward. For all of the raves about Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius in 2017 (.287/.318/.478), he wasn’t as productive as the 2016 version of Xander Bogaerts (.294/.356/.448), who has the offensive tools to reassert himself at age 25.

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Mookie Betts saw his OPS tumble from .897 to .803, falling from superstar status to “mere” All-Star level performance. Yet no one on the Red Sox endured a bigger nosedive than Hanley Ramirez, who went from a middle-of-the-order masher in 2016 who hit 30 homers and posted an .866 OPS to a below-average performer with a .750 OPS. That 116-point OPS dropoff was the 12th largest in baseball by a player who qualified for the batting title in 2016 and received regular playing time last year.

For better or worse, the Sox are hitching their lineup wagon to Ramirez and hoping that with free agency looming and a theoretically healthy left shoulder following his surgery, he returns to prior performance levels.

It’s worth noting that in 2016, Ramirez hit at roughly the level achieved by Yankees star Gary Sanchez in 2017 (albeit at a different, less valuable position). If steps forward occur for Ramirez, Betts, and Bogaerts, and if the team adds a true middle-of-the-order masher, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the gap between Boston’s lineup and that of the Yankees – while still likely present – diminish, even with Stanton heading to New York.

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That’s no guarantee. Far from it. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Yankees outscore the Red Sox by 100 or more runs next year.

But at a time when the Red Sox already have roughly $200 million committed to their payroll (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) for 2017, the Sox seem unlikely to respond to the Yankees by targeting multitudes of free agents. The Sox’ place in the AL East landscape will be determined largely by their key holdovers, and how many of them can return to something approximating their 2016 and 2015 levels of performance as opposed to repeating their struggles of 2017.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.