Third base has been a hole for the Red Sox this season. I am sure that this is not news to Red Sox fans. So far this season, Boston third basemen have combined to hit .239/.286/.330, for a 64 wRC+ and -0.4 WAR, per FanGraphs. Only the Braves and the Giants have been getting less production from the hot corner. That is a big problem for a team that is trying to contend.
The Red Sox’s problems at third base are nothing new. According to the Baseball Reference Play Index, Red Sox third basemen have combined for only half a win since 2012, when they traded away Kevin Youkilis because Will Middlebrooks was off to a great start since making his debut. It was good process, but bad results. Middlebrooks struggled with injuries over the following two seasons and hit only .213/.265/.364 during that time. After the 2014 season, the Red Sox decided to sign Sandoval and trade Middlebrooks to the Padres for Ryan Hanigan. Sandoval, in turn, was a huge disappointment in 2015. He hit and fielded so poorly that he was worth almost a full win below replacement, per Baseball Reference.
The Red Sox were so disappointed with Sandoval that they decided to make Travis Shaw their everyday third baseman in 2016. It was an odd decision because Shaw was never much of a prospect, and he had primarily been a first baseman in the minors. It was questionable whether or not he could handle third base.
The Travis Shaw experiment worked great... for about two months. Through May, he hit .292/.358/.508, but he struck out a quarter of the time and had a .376 BABIP. The regression monster came for Shaw, as he hit just .207/.270/.361 for the rest of the year. The Red Sox ended up trading him to the Brewers for just a reliever, Tyler Thornburg, and decided to go back to their pricey investment. Sandoval had missed almost the entire 2016 season due to injury.
“The best shape of his life” has practically become cliché, but in the case of Sandoval, he really did lose a lot of weight and looked better than ever before the start of this season. If he was ever going to give the Sox a return on investment, he had given himself the best chance to do so. He only had 67 PA before hitting the DL, but hit just as poorly as he did in 2015, albeit with a .217 BABIP. His hard-hit rate is at 43 percent, and he is hitting a good percentage of line drives, so hopefully some positive regression will be coming soon.
None of the backups have performed much better than Sandoval did in his absence. Red Sox fans are just going to have to hope that he figures something out or enjoys some positive regression when he comes back.
The irony in all this is that Shaw is doing quite well in Milwaukee, and Thornburg has yet to play a game for the Sox. He is hitting .283/.320/.543 with 8 HR. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Shaw has actually changed for the better; he has improved his contact rates, but he is also walking a lot less. Unlike players such as Francisco Lindor, he is hitting the ball on the ground a lot more often. Furthermore, his home run spike is the result of a 25 percent HR/FB ratio. Red Sox fans might be missing him right now, but they probably won’t be by the end of the season.
Sandoval is under contract through 2019, but will almost certainly lose playing time once Rafael Devers reaches the majors. He is one of the best prospects in baseball and is clearly the Red Sox’s future at third base. He is only 20 years old and is currently killing it in Double A. He is hitting .324/.393/.590 with 7 HR. He is making great progress in his development, but he probably won’t see major league action until late 2018 at the earliest.
The Red Sox do not have a lot of options on the trade market, either. They could check in with the Reds to see if Eugenio Suárez is available, but with the way he is performing they would have to pay a lot. That would be awfully risky. Moreover, he is under contract through 2020, so the Red Sox would have a logjam at third base whenever Devers gets the call-up. Something else they could do is take a flyer on Todd Frazier if they can get him for dirt cheap. However, his upside is low and he is struggling right now. His BABIP and HR/FB are very low for him, so one could bet on better luck coming his way. Still, he is highly unlikely to be anything more than a league-average hitter, and he is far from that at the moment.
The good news for the Red Sox is that they have enough talent elsewhere to make up for third base being a black hole. Hopefully they can hang on until Devers makes his debut, which could be as early as next year.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.