Ed. Note: Everyone say hello to Max, OTM’s newest writer.
Ed. Note #2: This was written prior to Hernandez’ injury and is being published prior to any diagnosis.
In 2016, the Red Sox had 10 different players play at least one game at third base. I’d be willing to bet not even John Farrell could name them all. (Hint: if that trivia question ever comes up Bryan Holaday actually played a game at third).
That’s not problematic in itself — if they’re a productive group, I guess there’s no harm in rotating a cavalcade of characters. But the most productive of the crew was Travis Shaw, who ended up slashing .242/.301/.421 after hitting .314 in April.
So when Shaw was shipped off after the season in the Tyler Thornburg deal and Yoan Moncada was traded as the centerpiece for Chris Sale, Pablo Sandoval was seemingly handed the job on a platter. If he did his job, it seemed likely Sandoval would start 140+ games at the hot corner, and end the carousel of last season.
Instead, Sandoval played 17 games, with a -0.4 WAR, and found himself back in the spot he has been most comfortable as a Red Sox: the disabled list.
Out of necessity, utilityman Marco Hernandez was given the job until Sandoval returned. Hernandez has taken the job and run with it, hitting .276 with solid contact and speed. He’s currently fifth among Red Sox position players — behind only the four killer B’s — in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Despite two errors against the Cubs Sunday night, Hernandez has proven himself more than capable defensively at the hot corner. The defensive metrics are pretty “meh” on him, for the record — an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -0.5, which is still far better than Sandoval’s (-2.0). Take all defensive metrics with a grain of salt, though, particularly in samples this small. That same night, Hernandez beat out a relatively routine infield single in the bottom of the eight to spark a four-run rally. Sometimes, it’s the little things. That’s a little thing Sandoval surely wouldn’t have done.
This time when Sandoval returns, he won’t be handed his job back. Hernandez has made a legitimate claim to become the everyday third baseman. But should he be?
The answer is far more nuanced than saying, “Hernandez has been better than Sandoval, the job should be his.” Because while that has been undeniably true, there are other factors at play.
While the court of public opinion in Boston will be decidedly opposed to Sandoval, it should be noted that he still has a long track record of being a productive hitter at this level. He’s still a career .286 hitter and has a career 116 OPS+. While this argument wears thinner and thinner with each belt-buckling swing and each lumbering error, it should still be noted he has only really had one bad season in Boston. And 67 at-bats is hardly a sample-size to declare this season a failure just yet.
(For your viewing pleasure, though:)
But there are also reasons not to lock Hernandez into that everyday role. For one, he profiles more as a middle-infielder than a third baseman; his size, speed and lack of power don’t necessarily check the stereotypical third base box. By its definition, Hernandez is a utility guy, and will be most valuable in that role. He will be important in September when Bogaerts desperately needs a day off at short, will be able to fill in when Pedroia takes his DL stint in August, and can likely slot into the outfield when Bradley needs a day here and there. He is the younger, quicker, more durable Brock Holt. And speaking of Holt…
Remember when they tried this with him? He plainly outplayed Rusney Castillo in left field in spring training last season and won the job outright. Coming off an all-star year as a utility guy, Holt hit .255/.322/.383, eventually missing much of the year to injury and losing the left field gig to some guy named Andrew Benintendi. I wonder how he turned out.
The point being, not only was Holt a decidedly average left fielder, he also left the spot where he provided the most value, utility. If you think about the utility spot as an actual position, which Farrell probably should, Holt provided the most value there, filling in the gaps here and there when the inevitable wear and tear of a 162-game season takes its toll.
Hernandez, too, proves the most valuable at utility, and would most likely provide replacement level value at third base. He needs to be available as a pinch runner/hitter, defensive replacement, injury fill-in, etc. because depth is paramount in baseball, and is something this Red Sox roster sorely lacks.
If the consequence of that is a few more broken belt buckles, well, we might just have to make that sacrifice.