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Pablo Sandoval’s goal: be average

Pablo Sandoval could be great again, but he doesn’t have to be

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Pablo Sandoval is looking pretty good these days. Even the seven months since his early-season surgery hardly seem like enough to have changed the Panda we knew in 2015 and April into...this.

But there he is. And it’s actually got even a fairly jaded Red Sox fanbase feeling excited for Pablo Sandoval in 2017.

And hey, they’ve got some decent reason to be. At his best, Sandoval was an exceptional third baseman. He was the kind of player that you’d tick off as “reasons the Red Sox (well, Giants) will win the World Series.” And there are Red Sox fans who very much hope that a slimmed-down Sandoval will find his way onto that list again at some point in 2017.

That’s a lot to ask for, though. Really, it’s not something we’ve seen in five years now. Even if Sandoval is in The Best Shape Of His Life (and in this case, it’s actually easy to believe he is!) it’s hard to believe Sandoval will have one of the best seasons of his career again after so long. It can happen, especially given that Sandoval is still just 30 years old, but the Red Sox and their fans can hardly expect it to happen.

And that’s fine. The Red Sox don’t need Sandoval to be great. In fact, they don’t even really need him to be much good. It’d be nice to see his hard work turn into solid numbers—say something the 117 wRC+ he produced in 2013—but it’s not necessary.

All the Red Sox need from Pablo Sandoval is to be acceptable. To not draw notice with just how bad he is.

Every team has strong and weak points. The last two successful Red Sox teams (2013, 2016) were certainly no exception, and both times third base has clearly been a weakness. In both years, by Fangraphs’ estimation, the Red Sox’ third basemen were worth less than a win above a replacement player. Those were the years of Will Middlebrooks and, of course, Travis Shaw respectively. All things considered, it was pretty damn bad.

In fact, when you toss in 2014 and Sandoval’s dreadful 2015, the Red Sox have been the worst team in baseball when it comes to getting anything out of third base, to the point where they probably would have been better off just cycling through random Triple-A guys in hopes of lucking into a decent player.

That’s the mark that the Red Sox are asking Pablo Sandoval to beat. They’ve got so much strong, young talent established on the rest of the roster that they shouldn’t be worried about a 2014 or 2015 sort of disappointment. They don’t need Sandoval to carry them, or even be a major contributor.

They just need him not to be actively bad to the point where he demands replacement in the way he was in 2015, the way Will Middlebrooks was in 2013-2014 and the way Travis Shaw frankly was in the second half of 2016. Because frankly they don’t have that replacement. The Sox have gone out and acquired the likes of Josh Rutledge and Matt Dominguez because otherwise their best depth options were Jantzen Witte who many of you have probably never even heard of and Rafael Devers, who most of you have, but who is still 20 and has yet to take an at-bat in Double-A.

We can all hope that an in-shape Sandoval is a Sandoval ready to recapture some or all of his former glory. But it’s best not to let those hopes get mixed up with expectations and the actual needs of the team. If a slimmer Sandoval can provide a league average bat and allow some of those third base instincts he’s honed over so many years actually show through on the field as they once did, that should be enough to avoid actively dragging down a Red Sox team that otherwise has no shortage of strengths.