2016 marked return to prominence for Red Sox

Papi's farewell, Betts' success highlight worst-to-first transition

2016 marked return to prominence for Red Sox

BOSTON -- For the Red Sox, the sting of the sweep will linger for a few days. But it will eventually give way to the realization that 2016 was a year of baseball revival in Boston.

Fenway Park was once again filled with the buzz that can only be felt during a pennant race. After a pair of last-place finishes, the Red Sox moved all the way up to first place in the American League East, led by a retiring legend and a core of emerging stars.

After going 93-69, Boston went cold in the AL Division Series, getting swept by the Indians. But the six-month journey shouldn't be erased by three bad days. David Ortiz conveyed that message to his teammates moments after playing his final game.

Sox look to tweak East title team for '17 run

"It's a big step because it's like going from bad to good from day to night," said Ortiz. "And I told my teammates about it. I want them to feel happy and proud of themselves. And I want them to do what I did back in the day -- reflect that in the following year and come back and fight."

The Red Sox will fight on without Big Papi next year. Here's a look back at their final season with him.

Record: 93-69, first place, AL East. Swept, 3-0, in ALDS by Indians.

Defining moment: It was the day before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The Red Sox had lost seven of their last nine games, and were trailing, 3-1, in the ninth inning at Anaheim. Virtually the entire front office was watching from a suite in the press-box level, contemplating moves that could turn the team around. Dustin Pedroia than smashed a three-run homer against Huston Street. Xander Bogaerts followed with a moonshot to center. The Sox rolled to a 5-3 win and played with a different swagger -- particularly on the road -- for the remainder of the regular season.

"I will say it's just a very proud moment to see what our guys came through this year," said manager John Farrell. "How they played, how they came together as a team. How they had one another's back to win the AL East."

Bogaerts' solo home run

What went right: Ortiz's final season was for the ages instead of the aged. The 40-year-old slugger had a season right out of his prime while also serving as a leader to the young core of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi.

Betts developed into an AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate in just his second full season. He became the seventh player in history to have 200 hits, 40 doubles, 30 homers and 20 steals -- and he eclipsed each benchmark with room to spare.

Must C: Betts' three home runs

Along with Betts, Bradley and Bogaerts became All-Stars for the first time.

As poor as Hanley Ramirez's first season was for the Red Sox, that's how good his second season was. Not only did he make a nice transition to first base, but he was a machine at the plate and got red-hot down the stretch.

In his second year with the Red Sox, Rick Porcello developed into a stopper and an ace.

Porcello's 22nd victory

What went wrong: Third baseman Pablo Sandoval lost his job to Travis Shaw in Spring Training and lost his season shortly after that thanks to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Shaw started hot, but cooled off considerably. Sandoval's loss was ultimately felt.

Blake Swihart broke camp as the Opening Day starter behind the plate, but was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket on April 15. He was converted to left field upon his return in May, but suffered a season-ending injury to his left ankle just weeks later when it got submerged under a side wall at Fenway. Given the emergence of Benintendi, Swihart might be best off trying to win the catching job back in 2017.

When the Red Sox traded Anderson Espinoza for lefty Drew Pomeranz at the All-Star break, they had high hopes for a pitcher who had blossomed in the first half for the Padres. But Pomeranz was fatigued down the stretch and questions developed about his health when it was revealed the Padres didn't fully disclose his medical records prior to the trade. The Red Sox had a chance to rescind the trade, but elected to stick with it. The club hopes Pomeranz can rebound after a winter of rest and rehab.

Biggest surprise: Sandy Leon was the definition of organizational depth when the season started. Though he was invited to Spring Training, he was not on the 40-man roster. But when Ryan Hanigan and Swihart were injured on the same day in early June, help was needed, and Leon was summoned from Pawtucket. Known as a defense-first catcher throughout his career, Leon wound up taking off at the plate and became the starting catcher for the rest of the season. As many catchers do, Leon finally cooled off over the final five weeks of the season. On Aug. 22, he was hitting an eye-popping .383.

Leon's tape-measure home run

Hitter of the Year: Ortiz's final season was one of his best -- and probably the best ever for a 40-year-old. He led the Majors with a 1.021 OPS. The 38 homers and 127 RBIs represented his best totals in those categories since 2006. Given how productive Ortiz was, many people seemed surprised that he didn't change his retirement plans. But Ortiz was quick to point out the chronic pain he had dealt with in his feet since 2012. There's also something to be said for Ortiz being the rare athlete who is going out at the top of his game.

Must C: Papi's go-ahead home run

Pitcher of the Year: Porcello wasn't on anyone's list of AL Cy Young Award candidates when the season started. By the time it ended, Porcello had perhaps emerged into the favorite for the award given annually to the league's best pitcher. The sinkerballer blossomed this season, executing with pinpoint control and gaining confidence in his secondary pitches. He was nearly unbeatable (13-1) at Fenway. Porcello led the Majors with 22 wins and a 5.91 K/BB ratio.

Porcello goes the distance

Rookie of the Year: Benintendi was Boston's best rookie this season. But he might win the AL Rookie of the Year in 2017. With only 105 at-bats after his callup on Aug. 2, Benintendi retains his rookie eligibility for 2017. The left fielder seemed comfortable in his surroundings from the first day, which is impressive considering he was promoted straight from Double-A and was drafted out of Arkansas in 2015. The catch that Benintendi made at Tropicana Field to rob Steven Souza Jr. of a homer on Aug. 22 was one of the unforgettable moments of the season.

Benintendi's catch to rob homer

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.