Alright, Red Sox fans, you've got yourselves a shiny new third baseman, and he's pretty good. The Red Sox made it known from day one--if not before--that they wanted the man known as Kung Fu Panda in Boston, and with Sandoval clearly feeling the same way, it was only a matter of time before he signed on to play the hot corner in Fenway Park. In a few short hours, we'll have our first look at him in a Red Sox uniform, and then we'll start the countdown to his first regular season at bat.
As much as Sandoval wanted to be in Boston, though, this is no easy town to play in. Red Sox fans have high expectations--sometimes to the point of being unfair--and there are certain elements of a media who will spend hours ripping a player to shreds after ten straight hits if their eleventh at bat was a strikeout. It's the sort of thing that can really derail a player, and through no fault of his own, Pablo Sandoval might be at particular risk here simply because he's sometimes perceived to be something he is not.
So what is Pablo Sandoval? He is a good player, but not a great one. Or at the very least he's not proven to be the player he once promised to be. At 22, Sandoval looked like a phenom. At 24, when he bounced all the way back to hit .315/.357/.552 after a sophomore slump, he looked like a potential Hall of Famer in the making. If this was how Sandoval introduced himself in his first 2000 plate appearances, we could only imagine what he could manage in his prime.
But that hasn't really panned out, whether most fans realize it or not. I remember quickly familiarizing myself with the Giants before Boston played them late last year, and being quite surprised to discover that Sandoval was not the threat I had assumed he was. He had dropped off again in an injury-marred 2012 campaign, and didn't really find his way back in 2013 or, as it would turn out, 2014. In fact, last year was his worst campaign at the plate since 2010. All told, he hit .279/.324/.415--still good for an above-average 111 wRC+, but a far cry from the numbers he produced earlier in his career.
Make no mistake, though. Just because Sandoval isn't the All-Star he once was does not make him a bad player. First off, it has to be acknowledged that a .740 OPS isn't nearly so low relative to the league as it used to be. And, yes, some time in Fenway could help those numbers out. AT&T Park is just a miserable place to play for a hitter (numbers wise, we make no comment on the charming atmosphere), while Fenway is the polar opposite. There is also some upside in the fact that, yes, Sandoval was once a dominant force at the plate. Perhaps he'll surprise us with a big return to form.
Still, even if there's no Panda Renaissance forthcoming, the value of Sandoval does not rest solely on his bat. Sandoval can actually flash some pretty impressive leather as well. While he certainly doesn't look the part, and shouldn't be running down any fly balls in the outfield, Sandoval possesses the quickness and reflexes needed to play a good third base. Red Sox fans should certainly be familiar with the idea of a deceptively good third baseman. After all, Mike Lowell was born into this world with a beard more salt than pepper, and that didn't stop him from playing one of the best third bases in the league by foregoing the flashy play in exchange for converting every single chance he should.
The possibility certainly exists that Sandoval comes into Fenway Park and just goes nuts, hitting like he did in 2009 and 2011, basically demanding a spot in the middle of the order along with Hanley Ramirez and David Ortiz. If he doesn't, though, Red Sox fans shouldn't bemoan his failure to meet unrealistic expectations. Pablo Sandoval is a good player, and for what it's worth should be a lot of fun in Boston so long as we let ourselves enjoy him for what he is.