Red Sox: Pablo Sandoval will be forced to compete for a starting job

Three years into the $95 million contract he signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2014, Pablo Sandoval‘s incumbency is once again under question.

Writing for the Boston Herald, Jason Mastrodonato documents a continued sense of urgency from manager John Farrell that will prioritize present performance and not past history when deciding the opening day lineup. Contrary to his outlook in 2015, when Shane Victorino was promised a starting job contingent on his health and Mike Napoli maintained his position at first despite hitting .207 until his mid-season trade. The Red Sox saw success under a renewed approach last season when Hanley Ramirez won his job over Travis Shaw who would then outplay Sandoval for the starting role at third.

To say that Sandoval’s time in Boston has been a disappointment thus far would be a vast understatement. In 129 games across two seasons, he’s managed to hit just .242 with a .651 OPS, 10 home runs and 47 runs batted in. His on-field struggles have been well documented, as have his weight and health issues. Based on workout videos that he’s posted on social media, Sandoval appears to have slimmed down and looks to be at playing weight. And since undergoing shoulder surgery in May, he’s been monitored closely by the Red Sox during his recovery.

Sandoval’s is an interesting situation because his expectations among fans and the front office are basically non-existent. With $60 million remaining on his contract, the Red Sox are forced to give him every opportunity possible to be of some value in 2017, though there will be no guarantees. As Mastrodanoto notes, there will be a competition during Spring Training for the starting position according to Farrell:

We’ve got a versatile team as well. In the event we have to find what the best matchup is for us, whether that’s Brock Holt, Josh Rutledge — the beauty of last spring is that there’s a note of competition in camp. That was born out of third base last year and that won’t change.

Based on history, Sandoval is the clear choice to start over either of Holt or Rutledge. With career OPS marks of .705 and .709 respectively, neither of Sandoval’s potential replacements inspire much confidence as viable starters.

In a pre-Chris Sale world, we wouldn’t even have to discuss one of Holt or Rutledge as Pablo fail safes. Yoan Moncada, baseball’s number one prospect and minor league player of the year would be the first choice to step in and take over the hot corner for 2017 and quite likely the future. Now with the White Sox, Moncada won’t be there to guard against another meltdown from the Panda and neither will top third base prospect, Rafael Devers.

At just 20 years old, Devers looks to be on a similar path as Xander Bogaerts. His invitation to big league camp has caused some to speculate on his availability should a situation at third arise. Any thought of him being major league ready should be quickly dismissed, though. Devers is almost guaranteed to start the season at AA and John Farrell made it a point to clarify what his role is at Spring Training:

Obviously Rafael is going to come to camp but that’s more about getting exposure and getting acclimated to the big league environment.

Where else could the Red Sox turn to find help at the position?

Free agency is the most apparent route. Prior to the new year, the team had contacted free agent and long-time Minnesota Twin Trevor Plouffe on a potential deal. His 122 OPS+ against lefties is enticing, especially given Sandoval’s difficulties against Southpaws. The Red Sox were willing to give him a deal in the $2-3 million range until the Athletics signed him for $5.25 million a day ago.

Third base is, for the time being, Pablo Sandoval’s position to lose. There’s no doubt the Red Sox would prefer to field Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge in utility roles, the capacity in which their value is maximized. Without a prospect waiting in the wings, or an apparent free agent solution, we will likely see Sandoval on the team’s opening day lineup.

He’s aware of his disastrous performance in Boston, by his own admission. In a December interview with ESPN.com and ESPNDeportes.com, Sandoval said that he had gotten “complacent” and that his “career had fallen into an abyss.” The first step towards improvement is admitting your struggles, but I doubt that many Sox fans care at this point.

Sandoval’s been so bad, and made so many excuses, that the only way he can win back the support of the fans is with on-field performance. No matter how many workout videos he posts, or quotes he gives on how he’s motivated to be the player he was in San Francisco, he has to deliver on the field. Asking him to be the two-time All-Star and World Series MVP he once was is a stretch, but at the very least we should expect him to not be the two-way liability he was for all of 2015 and his 3 games in 2016.

With less than stellar competition blocking his path to a starting role, Sandoval will get his chance to earn back the respect of the fanbase, and more importantly his position.

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