Travis Shaw is going to win a job on the Red Sox as a bench piece. Hanley Ramirez is transitioning to first base, and while there are questions about his defense after 2015's disaster of a season in left field, he seems to be returning to the line-drive swing that made him rich in the first place. Barring a real surprise, Pablo Sandoval is going to be the starting third baseman -- whether he rebounds is far more up in the air than Hanley's situation, at this point.
Given the questions involved at each corner, Shaw on the bench is key: Shaw played the vast majority of his minor-league games at first base, so he can help ease Hanley into a full-time gig by playing there a few times per week, and his defense at third is fine enough if he's needed there to spell Panda.
More than that, though, Shaw is also likely to be the more permanent answer to the questions at the corners, if Ramirez or Sandoval show they aren't up to it themselves. In his major-league debut season, Shaw hit .270/.327/.487 over 248 plate appearances, good for a 115 OPS+. You can't necessarily expect him to repeat that, given how he performed at Triple-A, but there is reason to believe he's going to be a better major-league player than he was minor-league one.
A huge part of the game, the part that projection systems aren't able to necessarily predict outright, is adjustments. Failure to adjust is often a reason why you'll see a player promoted to the majors and then suddenly unable to produce in the way that brought them there to begin with. Jackie Bradley is a very close-to-home example of this: he hit in a way that minor-league pitchers, with their minor-league arsenals and minor-league approaches, could not stop. In the majors, though, against pitchers who are, more often than not, hitting their spots and hitting them with stuff even Triple-A opponents aren't seeing on a consistent basis, small holes become gaping ones, and production suffers.
There's a constant back-and-forth in the majors, where pitchers adjust to the hitters and the hitters have to adjust right back. Shaw has already gone through some of this, as Tim Britton detailed at the Providence Journal:
When pitchers adjusted how they were attacking Shaw, pressuring him with hard stuff in, he started to cheat that way and expand his zone. In doing so, he sacrificed his coverage of the outer half in order to swing at pitches off the plate and in on his hands. The result was his first slump in the majors, as he went 5-for-43 over a 12-game stretch late last summer.
Shaw, with access to video and coaching that just isn't there in the minors, was able to see that those pitches he was cheating to make contact with weren't strikes, and weren't worth chasing. He was able to adjust -- and quickly -- and managed to succeed for the rest of the season to the tune of .272/.339/.476. Britton (and Red Sox hitting coach Victor Rodriguez) compared this adjustment to a similar one that Xander Bogaerts had to make upon his full-time arrival to the majors:
"It's about not being afraid to get beat. A lot of times that’s the problem: They get beat inside a couple times, and now they want to change," Rodriguez said. "They want to open up with the front side, and now they're getting the pitch they can do something with middle or middle-away, and they're around the ball. That’s what happened with Bogaerts."
Now, Shaw isn't Bogaerts, and he's already 26, so don't confuse the comparison. The point is just that what works in the minors doesn't necessarily work in the majors, and there is going to be an adjustment period for everyone making that jump. Shaw was able to pass his first adjustment test successfully, and while he's not a finished, definite product at this stage of his career, the fact he was coached so well and so quickly does give him reason for optimism that, say, the aforementioned situation for Jackie Bradley has not.
5 more intriguing Red Sox projections
We already covered the basics, so let's move on to the advanced.
Shaw has had real success in the minors, and even the high minors, as, after a different adjustment back in 2014, he crushed Double-A pitching with a .305/.406/.548 line. Triple-A Pawtucket was more of a challenge -- Shaw added aggression to his game, which helped him avoid strikeouts at Double-A, but he went a little overboard with that approach after his promotion. He seems to be settling into a more balanced approach these days -- patient when necessary, aggressive when it will make pitchers pay -- and if he can maintain it, he'll stick in the majors.
He might even be able to do so in a starting role, but one will have to open up for him to have that chance. Given that even if Hanley Ramirez thrives in 2016, he'll likely slot in as the team's designated hitter in 2017, it's worth it to the Sox to hold on to Shaw and continue to give him playing time to prove himself this summer. Whether it's a few hundred plate appearances off the bench as he helps keep Sandoval, Ramirez, and even utility man Brock Holt fresh, or because he has to take over at one of the corners barely matters.
What does matter is that Shaw will be there when the Red Sox need him, wherever they need him, and that he is likely up to the challenges he'll face. That's something you couldn't say a year ago, but Shaw has made adjustments, and maybe it's time we do, too.