While this past season wasn’t the first bad one in recent Red Sox history, it was the first bad season to end on a positive note. In previous iterations of down years, the team was blown up at the trade deadline and tanked to the end of the season. In 2015, however, Boston played its best baseball over the final two months of the season. What made it even more exciting was the fact that the victories and general good play came from the youth on the roster. Guys like Jackie Bradley, Eduardo Rodriguez, Blake Swihart and Henry Owens joined Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts as productive MLB players. Even beyond those names, though, no one better represented the out-of-nowhere strong play in the second half than Travis Shaw. As the organization and its new front office heads into a hugely important offseason, should they view Shaw as a future piece or a trade candidate?
Obviously, no good organization views these situations in such a binary fashion. Shaw, and everyone else for that matter, is a trade candidate if at least one other team values him highly enough. In essence, it comes down to how much value Shaw can carry for the Red Sox, and how much other teams in the league will covet him.
His stretch to finish last season should do nothing but boost his value, both from his current team and to other organizations who may try to acquire him. The 25-year-old came to the plate 248 times last season, and ended with a .274/.331/.491 line. His 117 OPS+ tied him with guys like Jason Heyward and Todd Frazier, albeit in a significantly smaller sample. With that being said, it’s a large enough sample for some of the noise to be taken out. If nothing else, Shaw showed us he has the capabilities to be a very good player.
That’s an extremely important jump for him, too. Coming into the year, nothing in his minor-league track record suggested he’d be much more than a 2nd division starter, and even that may have been reaching. Scouts liked his bat-to-ball skills, but not enough for the tool to play as more than average. He could hit for some power, but not before he made adjustments. Seeing him do it over two-plus months against major-league pitchers changes everything, including his ceiling. Even if you can’t believe everything you saw from him in the second half (he had a .985 OPS and a .311 ISO in August), teams around the league certainly look at him differently than they did at this time last year.
The issue, of course, is that the Red Sox have to see a different Travis Shaw as well. Whereas he came into the year as a depth piece who had just an outside shot at more than a handful of MLB plate appearances in 2015, he left the season as a relatively key piece on the 2016 team. The sample is still too small for a team that should theoretically be building a winner to trust Shaw with a starting job, but he could be one of the more important backups in recent memory. The two positions he can play with some confidence — first and third base — also happen to be two of the more uncertain long-term positions on the roster. Plan A appears to be to unload at least one of Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez, but that’s much easier said than done. There’s a decent chance that both are still on the roster next year, and that’s a lot of uncertainty at the corner infield spots. Having someone like Shaw, who can fill in admirably at both spots, is more important for the Red Sox than just about any other team in the league.
So, if they do decide to make Shaw a trade candidate, they’d first need to identify someone else who can fill that role. Internally, there are a couple names, though none of them are very inspiring. Brock Holt, of course, can play everyone on the diamond, but he’s also very likely going to be the backup middle infielder and possibly outfielder. You can only stretch one bench piece so thin. Garin Cecchini can be a backup first/third base type, but his performance in this past year makes counting on that next to impossible. Sam Travis can serve as first base depth, but with no experience above Double-A, he likely won’t be ready for that role until at least June. So, if the Red Sox are going to find some Ramirez/Sandoval insurance, they’ll have to search outside the organization.
Luckily for them, there are some options in free agency. If you listen to Tim Britton and Brian MacPherson from the Providence Journal, you’ve likely heard them mention Juan Uribe as a possible target, and it makes a lot of sense for this position. Kelly Johnson and Mark Reynolds could also fill that role. While they don’t have the upside and room for growth of a young player like Shaw, they have more certainty that comes with a stronger track record.
Even with that track record, however, the Red Sox would still be taking a step back in terms of depth, and would be spending more money on the replacement. This brings us to the final piece of the equation, which is what they could get back for Shaw. As I mentioned earlier, his hot end of the season certainly boosted his value. The extent to which it was boosted will differ depending on the organization, but it’s safe to say it’s higher than it was three months ago. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make moving him worthwhile. For instance, I think we can all agree that Shaw isn’t bringing back that ace everyone expects the Red Sox to acquire this winter. Instead, he’d likely be the third piece in a trade like that. If he were traded alone or as a lead piece, I’d peg his return as something like a good bullpen piece or strong outfield depth. He won’t bring back a game-changer, but he can certainly bring back something useful.
So, is that enough? I lean towards no, though that’s almost entirely because of the team’s situation. Although he could bring back a useful bullpen piece, and that’s desperately needed right now, there are plenty of other ways to acquire someone like that. If they’re only going for depth in the outfield, free agency has plenty of options in that department as well. The Red Sox need that insurance on the corners, though, and Shaw is an upgrade over the alternatives. He’s obviously not untouchable, but unless he’s a deal breaker in a trade for an ace or Boston goes in another unexpected direction at the corners, Shaw is a better fit and more valuable piece for the Red Sox than any other team in baseball, and that makes him extremely difficult to deal.