On eve of season, Red Sox demonstrate urgency to stop the losing

CLEVELAND -- This is full circle.

Six months ago, on a chilly Sunday in early autumn, the Boston Red Sox came here, to Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland, to conclude a 162-game slog that weeks earlier had morphed from bitterly disappointing to utterly irrelevant. Now, on a frosty Monday in early spring, they will return to open a new season that represents a clean slate and renewed promise.

Cynical? You should be. With back-to-back last-place finishes -- three in the last four years -- the Sox have earned your skepticism. Across baseball, hope springs eternal. In Boston, it must be earned.

A lot has changed in 183 days. Manager John Farrell beat cancer and is back in the dugout, his seat even toastier than when he left. The Red Sox traded for a new closer (Craig Kimbrel) and gave $217 million to a desperately needed ace (David Price). And a franchise icon (David Ortiz) decided one more season is enough to put a bow on a career that will merit strong consideration for the Hall of Fame.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Sox were unable to dump the “Gold Bust Twins,” although they did reassign them, moving Hanley Ramirez to first base and third baseman Pablo Sandoval to the bench. While Price will buoy the rotation, he’s backed by a familiar cast of uninspiring characters, including Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly.

For those reasons, it’s fair to wonder whether president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski did enough in his first offseason to drive the Red Sox out of the AL East cellar. But at least he is changing the way they dole out playing time.

Dombrowski has enough sway with principal owner John Henry that he can empower Farrell to use players based on performance, not contract status. As a result, Sandoval (owed $75 million through 2019) and left fielder Rusney Castillo (owed $43 million through 2019) will sit Monday in favor of Travis Shaw and Brock Holt, who will make a combined $1.12 million this year.

“I told John the same thing I’ve told (former Detroit Tigers manager) Jim Leyland for years and other managers I’ve worked with: ‘Play the lineup that gives us the best chance to win,’” Dombrowski said. “Sometimes I don’t think, because it was new for John, that he really believed it in the beginning.”

Farrell called Dombrowski’s approach "unique," a welcome change for a manager with tenuous job security. It’s refreshing, too, and if the Red Sox stick with it, a clubhouse culture built around greater accountability and less entitlement figures to follow.

Rick Thurman, Sandoval’s agent, advocated for his client Friday by telling MLB Network, “If you want to win, why leave the Ferrari in the garage?” And although that comment likely reflects Sandoval’s feelings, the portly Panda has disavowed them publicly, saying it “didn’t come from me” and claiming he understands why Farrell opted for Shaw, who outplayed him in spring training.

“Pablo has handled this extremely well,” Price said. “I definitely respect him -- he gained respect from me, just the way he’s handled this. I know that’s extremely tough to go through something like that, and I’ve talked to him quite a bit over the past couple of days. He’s said all the right things. Hopefully that helps us win. You’ve got to put the best nine guys out there, the guys that are going to give us the best chance to win. That’s what it’s all about.”

Indeed, Sandoval’s road back to the lineup involves exhibiting better range and agility at third base. Otherwise, Dombrowski surely will find a way to ship him out.

It’s an either-or scenario that rarely existed when former general manager Ben Cherington or even his predecessor Theo Epstein was in charge. When healthy in 2011-12, $142 million left fielder Carl Crawford played over upstarts Josh Reddick and Daniel Nava. As recently as last season, Farrell stuck with veteran right fielder Shane Victorino in spring training and struggling first baseman Mike Napoli through July even though their performance merited a reduction in playing time.

“Let’s face it,” Farrell said, “there’s huge financial ramifications with certain players. To have that clarity -- we’re all about winning games and we feel that the best team is the one that’s aligned right now -- and to have that ability to do that, put it this way, it was a little surprising when it was first said (by Dombrowski).”

And so, the Red Sox are back in Cleveland, having come full circle from the 2015 finale, with an organizational resolve that projects an urgency to contend.

Pretty soon, we’ll find out if they have the talent to match.