By the end of the 2016 season, the Boston Red Sox lineup was virtually without a weak spot. At the top of the lineup was former MVP Dustin Pedroia, current MVP runner-up Mookie Betts, and potential future MVP candidate Xander Bogaerts.
Perennial mashers David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez filled out the middle of the order. Even the bottom of the starting nine had well-respected players like Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Sandy Leon who each enjoyed breakout seasons.
Hell, by the end of the season the Red Sox had even provided their own upgrade in left field, when Boston called up Andrew Benintendi to replace the Chris Young/Brock Holt platoon. Benintendi’s production speaks for itself, as he slashed .295/.359/.476 in 118 plate appearances.
Despite the fact that they all seemed to go cold at once when Boston took on the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, the Red Sox had to feel pretty good about the guy at the plate’s chances to get a hit in eight of the nine spots in the order.
Most teams would kill to be able to write the names of eight above-average hitters into their lineup. But eight-of-nine is not nine-of-nine, and just because your lineup is almost perfect does not mean you have to resign yourself to that one weakness; there is always room for improvement.
For the Red Sox, third base was their weakness. Now, due to the retirement of the aforementioned Ortiz, they are no longer just one player away from the ideal lineup, but two, with the designated hitter slot up for grabs.
There is really no replacing Big Papi’s leadership and production — even signing Edwin Encarnacion can be considered a downgrade from Ortiz’s 2016 season. This article however, is not about who fills Ortiz’s shoes, but rather Boston’s options at the hot corner.
Long-term, there is essentially one option the Red Sox prefer at third: Yoan Moncada.
Even Moncada switching to another position and Rafael Devers becoming the third baseman will have meant that there is a weakness somewhere else on the diamond. Seeing as Moncada’s likely landing spots would be either second base (Pedroia) or center field (Bradley, Jr.), that situation is not ideal for the organization. The expectation is that the game’s top prospect will ultimately be the answer, and at this time there’s no reason to believe he won’t be.
But short-term, 2017, is another question. As much as scouts rave about Moncada’s tools and as well as he performed in the minors, he looked pretty green in his September call-up, striking out 12 times in 20 plate appearances. It would be fair to say that he could use a few more months in the minor leagues — he’s yet to play in Triple-A — and that’s precisely what the Red Sox’s plans look to be for him at this moment, according to MassLive.com.
So if not Moncada, then who will it be to kick off 2017? Let’s take a look at who manned the position for the Red Sox last season:
None of these options are great. In fact, no team’s third basemen were less productive hitters than Boston’s, when sorted by wRC+. Look at how they compare to the league average:
The group was atrocious, and it’s unclear — outside of Moncada — who from that group provides even a semblance of optimism in 2017.
But again, the beginning of the season is about providing a bridge that’s steady enough to last until Moncada is ready for the big league stage. Unfortunately, Boston is likely in the same spot it was at the beginning of 2016’s spring training, with a competition between Pablo Sandoval and Travis Shaw.
With Sandoval injured for the majority of the season, Shaw won the job almost by default. Look at who else the Red Sox played at third base -- he was the best of a bad crop of options.
Based on this list, the best Boston can probably hope for is for Shaw’s production to mirror last season: he started out hot. Through May 31, he had an OPS of .866 with 26 extra base hits. It looked for the first two months of the season that he’d won the job more than Sandoval had lost it.
But as soon as June rolled around, Shaw came back to earth. The .376 BABIP he’d run prior to June 1 cratered to .248 thereafter, and he slashed just .207/.270/.361 the rest of the season.
Considering his fairly steady exit velocity and the fact that his plate discipline numbers did not fluctuate all that much, Shaw likely ended up with a slash line right around where it should’ve been. He’s not as good as he was in April and May, nor is he as bad as he was from June onward. He ended up a below-average hitter for a third baseman, and that feels about right. Shaw can be the answer for short stretches, but if you’re counting on him for a full season, as the Red Sox did in 2016, they’ll probably be looking for an upgrade in the shorter-term.
With the long-term answer potentially just a few months away, it’s difficult to see Boston making a splash by signing a free agent to anything more than a one-year deal. Outside of Justin Turner, the list of free agent third basemen is mostly bleh, and Turner would only serve to block Moncada (for at least part of 2017).
That means that if not Shaw, Boston is likley to tag Pablo Sandoval to man the hot corner on Opening Day. That sentence probably makes Boston fans recoil, as Sandoval’s time in New England has been nothing short of embarrassing. But despite rumors of a reunion in San Francisco, it’s unlikely any team is going to want to take him off the Red Sox’ hands. The Sox are on the hook for 3 more years and over $50 million --- it’s probably worth seeing if you can get anything out of a player in whom so much is invested.
And if the thought still makes you queasy, then you may have just a few months to brace yourself because according to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, Sandoval will no just be given the opportunity to compete for the job, he is probably the favorite to win it.
The hope is that Sandoval can fill both of the Red Sox holes at various points this season: start the season at third, hit well, then shift over to first so Hanley Ramirez can DH once Moncada is deemed ready. That’s the pipe dream, and if it becomes reality the Red Sox really might have that ideal nine-for-nine lineup.
It’s unlikely to play out that way, of course. The last time he saw regular playing time, Sandoval was the most detrimental player in the major leagues, according to FanGraphs. Though he’s just a few seasons removed from being an above-average hitter on a regular basis, that’s a tough hole to climb out of.
Once Sandoval’s weight and age are factored in (he just turned 30) it’s hard to see the Panda we all remember returning. It’s not the way either he or Red Sox fans hoped this would play out, but it looks like he’ll be given one final opportunity. Now we’ll just have to see if he can finally make the most of it.
. . .
Joe Clarkin is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.