Today, John Farrell named Travis Shaw his starting third baseman, effectively benching Pablo Sandoval.
This is...probably the best move for the Red Sox if they're just looking to win games in April. Each player's respective performances in 2015 are enough to suggest that Shaw is the more likely of the two to be a viable baseball player, given just how terrible Sandoval was. And while Sandoval's rough spring batting line doesn't mean much of anything, it is a little harder to dismiss his continued defensive struggles this past month. Shaw might not be a defensive genius, but he's certainly a lot more likely to be replacement level or better both in the field, and at the plate.
But there's more to running a baseball team than getting out to a good start. The 2016 Red Sox will play on through the season, and there will be another Red Sox team after this one with its own problems to iron out. And in the long-term, this move raises two significant issues:
Pablo Sandoval's career in Boston is not at an end just yet, but it's on life support after this announcement. Sandoval was very much the default choice here. He's the veteran with years of results behind him up against the new kid with basically two good months and the incumbent (no matter what happened last September) to boot. That's not a reason to go with Sandoval over Shaw, but it does leave this decision speaking volumes. The Red Sox are not treating Sandoval the same way they would another veteran coming off a down year. Or, more concerningly, perhaps they are.
Down years happen. They happen rather regularly, in fact, in the middle of otherwise productive careers. Remember Jon Lester's 2012? How about David Ortiz in 2009? Jason Varitek in 2002? Hell, John Lackey was a Sandovalian disaster through his first two seasons, missed his third due to Tommy John Surgery, and then anchored the Red Sox rotation during a World Series season while Jon Lester was still busy getting over his issues in the middle of the year.
For Sandoval, this might be a blip on the radar or a very sudden career-ending decline. The reality is we don't have a large enough sample to say one way or another, and a big part of that is due to the fact that it's all isolated in that one 2015 season. That sort of thing can tend to snowball, particularly with quite so much negativity flying around.
The one greatest chance available to a player in that situation? The clean slate a new season provides. And while Sandoval will get superficially receive just that, inconsistent playing time with a vote of no confidence from the organization itself is not a situation conducive to success.
The good news is that this is likely not actually going to be seen as a negative precedent from future free agent targets. Pablo Sandoval has been so kind as to play this entire situation as poorly as possible, making it easy for other veterans to say "well, even if I struggle, I won't do X, Y, or Z," which can be filled in with such fine moments as "Instagramming on the toilet during games" or "contradicting ownership's story on what I was asked to do this offseason."
And if this really is just a single, unique incident, then it's not a big problem. But if the Red Sox are going to be in the business of giving up on a player after one tumultuous season, then they're going to find themselves in a real mess in a hurry. This is a team that is routinely in on top free agents, and paying them large amounts of money. They won't all work out--that's the nature of the business. But those that do won't always do so from the very beginning. And if they're willing to eat nearly nine-figure contracts whenever a minor leaguer (of little real renown before his debut, mind) puts together a couple good months, at best they're going to end up jettisoning quite a bit of value (and in terms of production, not just contracts) for dimes on the dollar. At worst they're going to alienate the same players they're so desperately going to need when many of those shiny new things prove to be Will Middlebrooks-like mirages.
The Red Sox teams of 2015 and 2016 could pretty much be summed up with one word: uncertainty. We've entered both seasons with reasonably high hopes, but no real confidence that things would turn out as we wanted. The rotation has been marked by coin flips, the lineup by veterans with red flags and rookies.
If the Red Sox could not avoid running into that same situation in 2016 given the players on the roster, they could at least be reasonably assured that they'd have the chance to answer their questions early. Particularly those that would need a definitive answer. With a player like Shaw, the decision can be deferred. We saw it with Jackie Bradley Jr., who this time last year seemed as likely to see his next at bat in the majors come with any other team as with the Red Sox.
Benched by the Red Sox, what's next for Pablo Sandoval?
The Red Sox answered one question, but now there are more being asked.
Red Sox an unlikely destination for straggling free agent pitchers
With Opening Day right around the corner, there's still a few pitchers left lingering on the free agent market. And while the Red Sox probably wouldn't mind having some of them on board, there's little chance any will be coming to Boston.
With Sandoval--as with the likes of Hanley Ramirez and Rick Porcello--that's not the case. They can't just be kept around indefinitely as depth in the event that a starting role is opened up. Yes, Pablo Sandoval is on the bench now, but do we really think that's where he's going to be in the long run? They can maybe float this situation for a year, but in the end he's either going to be starting in Boston, or he's going to be headed elsewhere.
And right now, with what the Red Sox know, they've got no idea which of those routes is the correct one. And they're not likely to really find out either so long as Sandoval's in the situation described up above with inconsistent playing time on a team that seems to have given up on him.
As it stands, Sandoval has no trade value. The Red Sox might get some team to take on some small portion of his contract in the way they did with Mike Lowell and Texas back in the day. But realistically the value on Sandoval wasn't ever going to go down much from where it was at to start the season, while it could certainly have gone up. Now, under these circumstances, it seems highly unlikely Sandoval's value moves from zero. It also seems entirely possible that the Red Sox won't have much of a better idea if they're about to give away the league's worst player or a legitimate two-time All-Star even after this whole damn season's gone by.
So it's November of 2016, and the Red Sox are trying to figure out what they need to do for 2017. Pablo Sandoval's name is sitting on that roster, fresh off a fringe-average season comprised of all of 140 plate appearances. David Ortiz is retiring. Hanley Ramirez is moving into the DH role. What do the Red Sox do? Do they just invite this same uncertainty upon themselves again, just one year later? Do they go out and spend on a free agent and then trade Pablo Sandoval and tens of millions of dollars to whoever's willing to take on even some portion of his contract in one fell swoop? All on the basis of one real opportunity?
Given Sandoval five, maybe six weeks to start the season, and all this goes away. If given a clean slate and a full offseason to get himself right, he continues to play like the worst player in baseball, then enough is enough. If he's good, then he's good, and everything is hunky-dory. Certainly there could be no complaints about that outcome. But there probably shouldn't be much of a line between Pablo Sandoval, starting third baseman and Pablo Sandoval, designated for assignment. And if that line does exist, it should probably be the result of performances in the weeks to come, with Shaw going nuts and forcing a decent-but-unimpressive Sandoval into a reserve role.
There's some very good news on this front, though, which is that Sam Travis could go a long way towards making this easier. If the Red Sox want to give Sandoval another chance in 2017, they can actually do so with some security if Sam Travis performs well in Pawtucket this year. We can hope!
Ultimately, though, for all the words I've thrown at it, this isn't as big a deal as it might seem. It is just a starting role to start the season--one that, for all we know, isn't even intended to last. Even if it is, even if it sticks and the Red Sox end up getting rid of Pablo Sandoval for less than he ends up being worth, or alienate him to the point where he's not interested in being a long-term member of the team anymore, the former scenario only matters if Shaw is good, and the latter if Sandoval is. In both of those situations, the Red Sox get something significant out of it both in 2015 and beyond.
And, frankly, when we're talking only about Sandoval and Shaw, I do find it hard to get upset. While I came out in support of Sandoval two weeks ago, the fact is that he's done very little to make this decision difficult for Farrell both on and off the field, while Shaw is at once a personal favorite (hell, I may have built his bandwagon over three years ago, albeit in memetic fashion) and has done just about everything right. No small part of me is glad to see Sandoval banished to the bench in favor of Shaw (particularly in light of this conversation).
It's when this stops being about Pablo Sandoval, though, that I get worried. They've just given the job of a veteran with thousands of plate appearances in many solid seasons away to a guy who came from relative obscurity to be really good in August, and really mediocre in September. Hell, he's not even playing his natural position. All on the basis of one season, however awful.
This is not the sort of thing an organization like the Red Sox should get in the habit of. It's not one they can afford to. They can eat a bad contract or two, particularly with the youth movement they have going on right now. But Sandoval's lasts for four more years, and if the Red Sox continue on this path, those contracts will start piling up. And that's assuming they don't take the same tact with minor leaguers. For as bad as the 2015 season went, imagine it without Xander Bogaerts, who struggled so mightily in 2014.
Consider this, then, not as a dramatic misstep--it's not--but as an ill omen that could come back to bite the Red Sox in the not-so-distant future, and will prove disastrous if it's the start of a reactionary trend.