Boston Red Sox relying heavily on Pablo Sandoval to play third base

Recent trades made by the Boston Red Sox leave Pablo Sandoval with little competition for the starting third base job. Can they rely on him in 2017?

The Boston Red Sox are placing a dangerous bet on Pablo Sandoval returning to form next season. That form isn’t round either, I mean they are banking on him regaining some semblance of the player they thought they were signing two years ago.

Sandoval doesn’t have to be an All-Star at the plate again – it’s clear that ship has sailed. He doesn’t need to crush 20+ homers either, as he was rarely that type of hitter to begin with. The Red Sox simply need him to hit enough that he’s not considered a liability.

The man fans once affectionately called Kung Fu Panda was surprisingly agile for a man his size during his more productive years. From what we’ve seen during his time in Boston, he’s lost a step in the field, one he isn’t likely to regain as he gets older. All accounts from eye witnesses and photos circulating throughout social media indicate Sandoval has slimmed down this offseason, so that will certainly help him remain mobile at the hot corner as long as he can keep the weight off. He’s not going to be great defensively, but he needs to at least be average. Panda isn’t winning a Gold Glove, but he can’t allow his glove to hurt the team.

Boston needs Sandoval to bounce back in 2017. Not necessarily a return to greatness, but an escape from being awful would suffice. This has become vital for this team to succeed because they are running low on alternative options.

The Red Sox made splashy moves this week to acquire Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg, lifting the starting rotation to the elite class and solidifying the eighth inning role in the bullpen in one day. These moves undoubtedly improve the roster for next season, but the trade off is that it cost them Travis Shaw and Yoan Moncada.

The result is that Sandoval is now left with little competition for the starting third base job. The only other option expected to begin the season on the 25-man roster is Brock Holt, who is best served as a utility man that can fill in at multiple positions. The Brockstar has an important role with this team, but if he’s cemented at third base on an everyday basis then that’s a problem.

Boston is essentially putting all of their eggs in the Sandoval basket, which seems risky considering we’re talking about a player that showed up to camp disgustingly out of shape and managed to appear in only three games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Even if you discount what was virtually a lost season in 2016, this is still a player who has seen his OPS drop in each of the previous four seasons. There were a number of reasons to be skeptical of the contract the Red Sox handed him two years ago, but those red flags have since turned into blaring sirens.

The good news is that Sandoval doesn’t need to do much to avoid utter disaster. Boston had by far the best offense in baseball last year despite getting putrid production from the third base spot. Red Sox third basemen ranked 28th in the majors with a collective .242 average and dead last with a .686 OPS.

Shaw clearly wasn’t the answer at third base. He had two strong months to begin last season after earning the job in spring training, but slumped to the tune of a .214 average and .587 OPS in June, then hit below the Mendoza Line after the All-Star break. Moncada may have a bright future, but his brief big league debut exposed holes in his swing that prove he’s not quite ready to produce at this level yet.

Sandoval may have been the best option the Red Sox have at third base on Opening Day even if those other options weren’t traded away. The problem is that a lack of competition leaves nobody to push Sandoval, so without the fear of potentially losing his starting spot again you have to wonder how motivated he will be. He may show up to spring training in decent shape, saying all the right things to spark a glimmer of optimism, but how long will that last?

Boston still owes Sandoval just shy of $60 million, including the buyout for 2020. Maybe they eventually give up on him by outrighting him off the 40-man roster (meaning they still pay him, but he doesn’t take up a roster spot or count toward the luxury tax), but it’s too soon to consider that last resort with that much money left on his contract. The Red Sox really have no choice but to give him another shot. It would just be nice if they actually had a Plan B in case he fails again.

With Moncada out of the picture, the future of the position turns to Rafael Devers, who is at least a year or two away. Boston has few assets remaining in their farm system to deal for a significant upgrade and little room in the budget if they are serious about avoiding the luxury tax.

That means Sandoval has to hold down the fort for now, a plan that will continue to worry Red Sox fans until he proves that he can contribute at the plate and on the field.

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