April takeaways: First-place Red Sox playing hard for John Farrell

The Red Sox have embraced manager John Farrell's up-tempo and aggressive style of offense. AP Photo/David Goldman

Twenty-eight days after they opened the season on a frosty afternoon in Cleveland, the Boston Red Sox awoke Tuesday in sole possession of first place in the American League East.

"It's still early," third baseman Travis Shaw said, "but early or not, you still want to be first place and that's what we are."

The Red Sox are in first place despite the fact that slugging Hanley Ramirez has hit one home run, ace lefty David Price owns a 6.14 ERA, new closer Craig Kimbrel has appeared shaky at times, and neither lefty Eduardo Rodriguez nor reliever Carson Smith has thrown a pitch because of spring-training injuries.

So, what are we to make of the 15-10 Red Sox? Here are five takeaways from April.

1. Ramirez doesn't have many home runs, but at last, he's a hit.

Through 25 games last season, Ramirez had 10 homers and a .949 OPS in 92 at-bats. At the same point this year, he has one homer and a .689 OPS in 99 at-bats.

And we would take 2016 Hanley over the 2015 version every day and twice on Sunday.

Never mind that Ramirez is a more complete player now, his adjustment to first base having gone more smoothly than anyone expected and far better than that train wreck of an experiment in left field. He's also hustling on the bases and playing with a team-first mentality rather than worrying about only himself. Arguably the Red Sox's biggest headache heading into spring training, he has been a model citizen.

As long as Ramirez stays healthy, the home runs will come. In the meantime, the Red Sox will take his .290 average with runners in scoring position, error-less defense and positive attitude.

2. Don't expect Pablo Sandoval to rise like a phoenix -- or John Lackey -- next year.

When team officials finally decide to share details of the left shoulder injury that will send Sandoval to Dr. James Andrews' operating table this week, they undoubtedly will express disappointment over the fact that he will miss the rest of the season.

In reality, though, it's a blessing.

Sandoval wasn't going to win back his job from Shaw, who has been the second-best hitter on the team behind 40-year-old David Ortiz. And although he said the right things publicly about wanting to do what's best for the team, Sandoval wasn't happy coming off the bench, a role for which he's ill-suited.

For the Red Sox, it's easier to put off dealing with their $95 million problem until next year, even if Sandoval's contract doesn't provide them any financial relief in the event of serious injury, a la Lackey after he missed the 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. Speaking of which, Lackey was able to get away from the team after a horrendous 2011 and start over in 2013 when he helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series title.

Sandoval desperately needs a fresh start. His estranged older brother told ESPN that Sandoval's problems stem from a partnership with Rafael Alvarez, a personal trainer whom he accused of not adhering to workout goals outlined by the Sox.

"The Red Sox offered their staff to support Pablo in his exercise routine. They met with Pablo's personal trainer and they handed a workout plan to be followed for Pablo, but his personal trainer never did it," Michael Sandoval said. "[Alvarez] isn't guided by this plan, as shown by the results so far."

Sandoval can save his career by taking advantage of the long recovery from surgery to get in better shape. It's just difficult to see him gaining redemption in Boston.

3. The leash is getting shorter on Clay Buchholz.

It was a general question about the Red Sox's play in April, but manager John Farrell took it as a chance to put the starting rotation's weak link on notice.

"We've got to get Clay going," Farrell said. "That's a big improvement that we could make."

Farrell is usually fiercely protective of his players, especially the veterans. But as his seat has gotten hotter after back-to-back last-place finishes, his loyalty has worn thinner, as evidenced by the spring-training benchings of high-salaried Sandoval and Rusney Castillo.

Buchholz has a 6.51 ERA through five starts, and although that isn't much worse than Price, at least the latter leads the league with 49 strikeouts, a sign that his stuff remains effective. Buchholz has only 19 strikeouts and 13 walks and seems to lack confidence in his stuff.

A change isn't imminent. But with Rodriguez nearing his return from a spring-training knee injury and right-hander Joe Kelly getting closer to testing his injured shoulder by throwing off a mound, the Red Sox will soon have options if Buchholz continues to falter.

4. The Red Sox are playing hard for Farrell.

At a time when every move Farrell makes seems to be met with greater scrutiny, there have been a few head-scratchers. To wit: Pinch-hitting for Shaw against lefties early in the season, and leaving reliever William Cuevas in for a third inning of a close game to take the loss in his major-league debut.

But the best way to judge a manager is how the players respond to his leadership, and the Red Sox have embraced Farrell's up-tempo style of offense and aggressiveness on the bases. They lead the league with 22 steals and take the extra base wherever possible.

And if Farrell's job really was dependent on a strong start, the fact that the Red Sox have made a habit of coming back from deficits is a testament to how much they enjoy playing for him.

"No matter the score, inning, situation, we're going to continue to fight," Shaw said. "And I like the way this offense works. It’s not one guy trying to do it every single night. It’s a different guy and up and down the lineup there’s not an easy out."

It doesn't fit the anti-Farrell narrative, but that's a reflection of the manager.

5. The schedule has been kind.

Eight wins in the last 10 games come with this disclaimer: The Red Sox's last three opponents -- the Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees -- have a combined 22-52 record.

Another scheduling oddity: The Sox have faced only two left-handed starting pitchers (Toronto's J.A. Happ and Tampa Bay's Matt Moore), a favorable draw for a lefty-leaning lineup that is slashing .204/.278/.327 in 113 at-bats against left-handed pitchers compared to .297/.357/.470 in 772 at-bats against right-handers.

The schedule gets more challenging this week with a three-game series against the 18-8 Chicago White Sox, who will send three lefties -- Jose Quintana, John Danks and Carlos Rodon -- to the mound.