The decision has been made, and it will be Travis Shaw starting at third base for the Red Sox on Opening Day, not Pablo Sandoval. This shakeup was made entirely based on the difference between Shaw and Sandoval since the former arrived in the majors, with the Sox leaving aside that they still owe the latter $75 million through 2019.
This move answers one question, but asks many more. Is this just a temporary benching until Sandoval -- who again, is still owed $75 million -- regains some semblance of his past self? Is this part of a larger plan to make Travis Shaw the third baseman of the future in Boston? Let's take these and other questions one at a time, and try to sort out just what the fallout from this decision -- which somehow seemed both inevitable and surprising at the same time -- is going to be for both Sandoval and the Sox.
Is Pablo Sandoval permanently benched?
No. Well, probably not. It kind of depends. Let's uh, let's start over. It is entirely possible that Travis Shaw hits well enough in the majors as a full-time player that his okay-ish defense at third is more than acceptable. If this were to happen, then it's going to be difficult for Sandoval to wrest the job back from Shaw even if he plays well in a part-time role. So, Shaw is the third baseman now, and if all goes to plan, he's the third baseman in the future, too.
That's if everything goes to plan, though. Shaw is still unproven as far as the long run goes, and it was just a year ago that everyone expected Sandoval to be productive for at least a few more seasons -- that's how he got a $95 million deal in the first place, and Boston's offer reportedly wasn't even the largest of them. So, if he plays well in a part-time role and shows that his defensive prowess was not actually lost on the flight from San Francisco to Boston,and Shaw struggles in a worrisome manner, then Sandoval could get his job back. Maybe even in 2016.
If Travis Shaw hits, is he the third baseman of the future, too?
Building on the above, if Shaw hits in a way where Sandoval can't get his job back, then yes, Shaw could very well be not just 2016's third baseman, but Boston's answer at the hot corner in the future, too. However, it's not as simple as "Will Shaw hit enough to stick at third?" -- there are a couple of other pieces in play here that could inevitably determine not just where Shaw plays, but also Sandoval.
David Ortiz is retiring after 2016, and presumably, Hanley Ramirez will shift to designated hitter to replace him in the lineup. That assumes a few things, though, such as Ramirez not playing first base well enough to be a long-term solution there, or the Red Sox having other viable options for first base that make pushing Hanley to DH sensible. If first base prospect Sam Travis mashes at Triple-A, he could very well be Boston's first baseman in 2017, with Ramirez the DH. That would mean there is only room for one of Shaw or Sandoval at third base.
There are other ways this could play out, though. If Sandoval's bat comes back but his defense does not, then he could be Boston's new DH, with Ramirez sticking at first base and Shaw at third. Sandoval could come all the way back on both sides of the ball and get his old job back, moving one of Ramirez or Shaw to DH and the other to first. Sam Travis could falter, Ramirez could be a problem at first for either defense or health reasons, Shaw could thrive at third, and suddenly Sandoval is the one who makes sense at first. Let's not even get into that third base could very well be top prospect Yoan Moncada's best fit as far as defensive positions go.
This is a game of musical chairs, and the music won't stop playing until we're well into 2016, or past it entirely.
Could the Red Sox trade Pablo Sandoval?
They sure could! If Sandoval doesn't rebound in a part-time role, there will still be teams willing to take a chance on him, with the idea being that a change of scenery would bring back the Panda of old. The Padres were scouting Sandoval earlier in the week while he was playing in a minor-league spring training game, and they were the reported highest bidders for his services prior to Boston's signing of him. If they think there is still something there, and the Sox are paying part of the bill, the Padres would absolutely take Sandoval from Boston.
The $75 million still owed him is merely an obstacle to be navigated, and one that is dwindling with each paycheck the Sox send him. If the Sox are willing to chip in large chunks of money -- and they would be, as 50 or 67 or 75 percent of $75 million is less than paying the whole thing like they're set to do now -- then someone, somewhere, will be happy to take Sandoval from Boston.
Will they trade Sandoval, though? That's a different question and a little more difficult to answer. As mentioned, it's unclear just what the Sox have planned for their 2017 infield configuration. Sandoval could show he's ready to play every day again at the same time Shaw is showing it was a good call to let him play every day, and the Sox won't want to just give that chance away at the earliest opportunity.
If the deal is right and they have no dire need for Sandoval on the roster anymore, though, then the Sox can and will trade him. No contract is immovable in this game, not with the kind of money that's in it, and there is always someone in a position to take a risk.
Can the Red Sox keep Pablo Sandoval, bench player?
A $75 million bench player is a very expensive bench player, but considering how the Red Sox are going about replacing Sandoval, there's no reason he can't just be a well-paid part-timer. Since the Sox didn't need to spend even more money to replace Sandoval, and are just plugging in league-minimum Travis Shaw there, everything is the same, financially speaking, as they would be were Sandoval still the starter and Shaw the part-timer on the bench.
The problems arise if Sandoval still isn't hitting or fielding at the same time Shaw proves to be better off in a part-time role as well. Then, the Sox have an inexpensive bench player and an expensive bench player and no actual solution at third base. Then it's harder to carry around Sandoval's money, as the more versatile and inexpensive Shaw -- who the Sox think can play left field if he has to -- would be the preferred one to keep if he's at least able to be a major-league bench bat.
In this situation, the Sox would need to eat most of what remains on Sandoval's deal in a trade in order to open up the roster spot. If there are no takers at all -- an unlikely situation, but not an impossible one -- then the Sox might have to eat all of it either Allen Craig-style or by straight-up releasing Panda back into the wild.
The only path that has the Sox unable to keep Sandoval around on the bench is the one where both he and Shaw prove unable to perform, so chances are good that his placement on said bench won't be a problem. Well, you hope not, anyway. Two last-place finishes in a row do have a way of dampening even the most optimistic of us.
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So, while we don't know absolutely for certain without question what's next for Sandoval and the Red Sox, we at least know the direction they are both heading in. Sandoval's career isn't over, not in Boston or otherwise, and there can still be plenty of use for him even if he's only a bench player from now on. If the Sox have to trade him, they most likely can do so, but there could be a number of situations where they want to keep Sandoval around because there will be a more pressing need for him than there is on Opening Day, 2016.
It's a complicated decision made somehow both more and less complicated by Boston's ignoring of the $75 million they still owe him. It feels like it's the right decision, but as with the rest of this, we'll just have to wait to find out if that's true.