There are a lot of reasons to like this year’s Red Sox.
But it’s the (more or less) eve of Spring Training, when anyone can finds plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their clubs.
And those often boil down to a heavily-leveraged ‘if.’
As a long time Pablo Sandoval “depologist” — from two months before Boston made the move I began vocalizing my doubts about his fit — I find myself eagerly, and somewhat unapologetically, anticipating his return, and the role he could play for this season.
Let me put it this way: Pablo Sandoval, in my mind, is the difference between Boston winning the AL East and Boston winning the World Series this year.
Sure, sure, Chris Sale is in town, and throwing trails of literal flames from the palm of his left hand.
Quick on his tail is a pair of AL Cy Young winners — including the reigning king of pitchers.
The bullpen is on fire.
Mookie Betts is the MVP frontrunner.
Andrew Benintendi is the next big thing.
Hanley Ramirez is swinging a big bat, and Dustin Pedroia is healthy and raging.
There are plenty of reasons to love this year’s Red Sox.
But Pablo Sandoval is the key.
In compiling a prospective Red Sox lineup earlier this week, I nearly chuckled out loud at the prospect of a lethal top four featuring Pedroia, Benintendi, Betts and Ramirez firing on all cylinders.
But what ‘if’ Sandoval in the No. 5 slot shows up in vintage San Francisco form instead of the Boston form we’ve come to know as having played in 195 of 327 possible games in a Red Sox uniform.
That fearsome top four suddenly becomes an unstoppable top five, leading into a bottom half of the lineup that would include streak-happy players like Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mitch Moreland in something of a wildcard role.
The reason I love the Panda this year, compared to the past two, is he — much like Hanley Ramirez last year — is showing up to camp saying and doing all the right things.
And, as anyone with eyes has already said, he has put in tremendously hard work to get himself into fighting shape.
What’s impressive about that fact is that he won a battle that was much more mental than physical. He put behind himself a nightmare of a last year in terms of press and public perception and got better. In a situation where some may have gotten bitter.
He lost his job, he had to sit out while his club won a division pennant without him.
And he did something about it.
That shows intense focus and drive, far beyond any physical prowess. And those are the qualities you need to succeed in Boston.
Qualities, by the way, you’ll be looking for as the franchise seeks to replace the energy and leadership that David Ortiz brought to the table.
Pablo Sandoval — happy, healthy and with something to prove — could be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Third base is his for the taking. He’s taken the right steps to get it back.
Now we just have to wait to see what happens next.