On Monday, John Farrell made some comments which gave the heavy impression that Pablo Sandoval might not get the start at third base on Opening Day. At least not if Travis Shaw continues his torrid streak through spring training.
For many Red Sox fans, it's an easy thought to get behind. Pablo Sandoval is a highly-paid once-star whose first year in a Boston uniform was about as bad as a year can get, and has done himself no favors in the court of public opinion. Travis Shaw, on the other hand, is the perfect guy to root for. Not only is he a home-grown prospect fresh from Triple-A, but a ninth-round pick of relatively little acclaim who popped onto the scene last year and crushed the ball for a bit in Boston when we really, really needed bright spots.
It makes the perfect story for many, and the numbers both last year and thus far this spring would support the switch. But even after Farrell's comments, I don't expect it to happen, and frankly, don't even think it should.
There's a lot that goes into this decision. Some things are strictly baseball-based, others have more to do with personalities and egos and everything we fans wish managers could ignore but deep down know they can't. But what's probably way too prominent in the minds of many is what should rank as one of the least important factors of all: spring training performances.
Travis Shaw is killing it. Not in just your standard "yeah this guy's off to a good start" killing it, but "wait those numbers aren't supposed to happen in baseball" killing it. Through the first three weeks of spring, Shaw is hitting .474/.500/.737, which is good for the third best OPS in baseball this spring. It's to the point where a base hit is almost a disappointment.
For a while there, that stood in sharp contrast to Pablo Sandoval's performance. The beleaguered third baseman didn't pick up his first hit until his fifth trip to the plate, and had a line of .071/.071/.143 as late as March 10th. Sandoval vs. Shaw was night vs. day, at least until Sandoval woke up. 11 days later, he's sporting a line of .290/.333/.613. No, it's not nearly on Shaw's level, but it no longer looks like the second coming of Ted Williams taking on Jeremy from accounting who politely begs out of the company softball games.
Really, though, none of that should matter much at all, because spring training results are notoriously bad at predicting regular season results. To the point where seeing a player perform the way Shaw has almost makes me more nervous they're going to crash and burn in the regular season than if they'd skipped March entirely. But putting my superstitious nonsense aside for the moment, the reality is that this is a month-long workout more than a short season of baseball games. Maybe John Farrell's comments on Shaw and Sandoval aren't based on where the ball lands so much as how they look at the plate, but even that is tainted by the fact that the opposing pitchers are just going out there to get their work in. Maybe Shaw sees a guy is going fastball - fastball - fastball and just sits dead red while Sandoval pretends it's a real at bat and he might see a curve. Who knows?
If the statistics provide any information, it's about when John Farrell chose to make his comments. If he'd brought up the possibility of Shaw starting over Sandoval back when Panda was hitting .071, he might have found himself in a situation where it would be almost impossible to deny Shaw the start at third base come Opening Day, whether or not he put any real stock in how the two were performing in spring. Instead, he waited until Sandoval had already bounced back, not just to a decent level, but a really good one.
Photo Credit: Kim Klement
Why say this now? Because he wants Sandoval to keep it up. Whether it was Travis Shaw's performance that got him going, or a random slow start, Pablo Sandoval is hitting now. Extra motivation can only help, and if Farrell can provide that then why not? But with so little playing time left between now and Opening Day, Sandoval is highly unlikely to be so God awful in the remaining days that it might force Farrell's hand.
All this assumes that Farrell wants to start the year with Sandoval at third, but that's pretty easy to imagine. For one thing, Farrell has always been a veterans-first kind of guy, and while Sandoval's time hasn't come with the Red Sox, he's certainly paid his dues in the majors.
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Beyond that, though, it's just good strategy. The Red Sox have two shots at third base this season, putting aside for the moment factors like Brock Holt and whether or not Hanley can hold down first base. And the reality is that it's much, much easier for them to put Travis Shaw in the supersub position to start the year and then swap him in if things go wrong than vice versa. Sandoval is the highly-paid "star", Shaw the prospect. If Shaw doesn't start the year in the lineup, that's just typical career progression. If Sandoval doesn't start the year in the lineup, he's lost his job.
And there's more than just the ego aspect to this. It's about knowing when, as a team, you have to make major long-term decisions. Say Shaw starts the season, and does what Sandoval did last year: good in April (.840 OPS, lest we forget), awful in May. Sandoval is given the job at some point in June, but when do they trust his performance? If he's not performing well in his first few weeks as the starting third baseman, do they just pull the plug on a $95 million investment then? Or do they keep waiting, perhaps leaving too little time to solve the problem when they finally decide they really have one.
The key is that Shaw can still be sent to the minors. A sophomore slump is not the end of the road for him, and it doesn't indicate that the Sox need to find a way to replace him on not just the 25-man, but 40-man roster. For Sandoval, though, even with that much money locked in, the Sox can only afford to hold off for so long. If it's June 1st and Sandoval has turned in two bad months as the starting third baseman, they can start looking for long-term replacements right away. Thanks to David Ortiz' retirement, the Red Sox will need another corner infielder in 2017 regardless of Travis Shaw's performance if Sandoval isn't any good. They won't be content going into a third season just hoping he'll finally bounce back, even with a decent (think "Chris Young of the infield" level) backup.
At the end of the day, it's possible no one of these things would save Sandoval's job to start the season if Travis Shaw really gave the team the best chance to win on day one. But even if we accept that's true--and given Sandoval's history it's not at all clear that it is--all the small, medium, and large things seem to push in Sandoval's favor. It's an easier transition, one that provides them the most important information first, plays into John Farrell's tendencies, and is most likely to prevent a crisis situation down the line.
The time for Pablo Sandoval to sink or swim is coming, but it's in April, when he can really prove whether he's still got any of the old Panda in him, not in March when guys like Will Middlebrooks can hit like Barry Bonds. Travis Shaw will get his opportunity, both to play and, if he does that well, then to start. The latter might not come until 2017, but if that's the case, it will be because Pablo Sandoval got his groove back. And no Red Sox fans could complain about that outcome.