Boston Red Sox 2016: Pablo Sandoval, bench player?

Major League Baseball players being well-paid is hardly a story anymore.

The sport has reached a point where a player being paid in excess of $20 million a year, is no longer considered completely absurd.

The profits are there, the owners are hardly struggling, if anyone is going to reap those benefits then it may as well be the players who perform on the field. That being the case, the prospect of a non-starter being paid $17.6 million to mostly ride the pine would probably be a bit of  a story.

That’s the scenario that this year’s Red Sox team could see play out.

For a proven starter to lose his job without an injury, two things have to happen.

The first is that the presumed starter must perform poor enough to allow his manager to ponder whether or not another option is a genuine upgrade.

To that end, Pablo Sandoval has done his part. When he arrived at the Red Sox spring training facility in Fort Myers Florida, he looked out of shape. That wasn’t good, and his public expression of apathy certainly didn’t help.

Sandoval got off to a terrible start at the plate. Over the last week, he’s shown sings of coming around. As of Wednesday morning, Sandoval is slashing .290/.333/.613.

He’s not hitting the ball too consistently, but on the occasions that he does make contact, he’s hitting the ball very hard. Six of his nine hits have been of the extra-base variety. The weight, the bat, those are the things that the team could probably see past, provided of course that they corrected themselves as the season progressed.

Sandoval has a position, that position is third base, and this is where he’s getting himself in trouble.

Major league teams can win with a third baseman who underperforms at the plate. The issue is whether or not that player costs them runs and outs at his position. To that end, Sandoval is placing his job in jeopardy. He’s already made four errors this spring.

Sandoval was never supposed to be the second coming of gold-glove winner Adrian Beltre, but he was supposed to be a fairly reliable third baseman.

There’s nothing reliable about Sandoval this spring. In spite of his gaffes with the media and on the field, his job would still be secure were it not for the performance of one Travis Shaw.

The second factor behind benching an established and well-paid major league starter is the presence of a viable alternative.

Travis Shaw is best known for his surprisingly successful stint filling in at first base for the 2015 Red Sox.

In reality Shaw can play either corner infield position. This spring he’s started nine games as the Red Sox third baseman.

He’s not playing to expectations or even slightly exceeding them. He’s blowing away any sort of reasonable expectations.

Shaw is slashing .474/.500/.737. He’s hit two home runs, and leads the Red Sox in both runs scored and hits. If Sandoval’s glove has been an abject disappointment, Shaw’s bat has been a pleasant surprise. Have we mentioned the errors?  No, but that’s because as of Wednesday Shaw has yet to commit an error this spring.

Had the two players shown up for spring training sporting identical salaries and resumes, this situation wouldn’t even be up for debate.

The job would already be Shaw’s to lose.

That’s not the case though. The Red Sox invested four-years and nearly $100 million in Sandoval. Even if they didn’t anticipate him as the team’s starting third baseman for all four years of his contract, there’s no way they ever envisioned a scenario in which he’d be in danger of losing his job to a relatively unheralded former 9th round draft pick who was thought to be at-best a late-blooming major league player.

Nonetheless that is what is happening this spring.

Jason Mastrodonato of The Boston Herald reported last Saturday that Red Sox manager John Farrell is quite open to starting Shaw over Sandoval, provided of course that Shaw continues to earn his starting job through the end of spring training.

Does Sandoval understand he has to perform in order to win a starting job at third base?“I think he’s very well aware of it,” Farrell said.

As of now Sandoval has said all the right things with regards to his starting job not being secure.

“Every year I have to prove something to my teammates, to the fans, to everybody,” Sandoval said in a brief conversation at his locker Sunday morning.

That sounds nice, but what if Sandoval does end up as a backup? What if an eight year veteran with two All-Star game appearances and three World Series rings, loses his starting job to the aforementioned  25-year-old, former 9th round pick with a grand total of 226 major league at-bats?

That might not sit too well. It could become the type of story that overshadows the underdog narrative that Shaw’s unlikely journey to opening day starting third baseman would provide.

The 2016 Red Sox need to win games. They could overcome a slow start to this season, but that’s about the last obstacle this team needs to deal with. If Sandoval can’t consistently field his position then the Red Sox have a very tough decision to make, and not much time left to make it.

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