Has any fall from grace in the past two or three years been as profound and sad as Pablo Sandoval’s? Maybe this year’s collapse of his former Giants qualifies. Maybe.
The Red Sox have designated Kung Fu Panda for assignment—while he was already down on the farm at Pawtucket rehabbing after an inner ear infection sidelined him earlier this month. The team activated him, then designated him.
It saves his plane fare, but the Red Sox will dine on a meal more voluminous and expensive than any Sandoval consumed in any restaurant. They still owe him the rest of this year’s $17.6 million, the $37.2 million he’s owed for the next two years, and there’s also the matter of a $5 million buyout for 2020.
The Twitterpaters are having field day with the DFA, including one posting the image of Honey Boo Boo crowing and waving bye-bye. But it isn’t exactly a laughing matter for Sandoval or the Red Sox. Both parties expected something big enough when Sandoval signed with the Red Sox after the 2014 season, and both sides come away wondering what went haywire.
Sandoval spent his first season in Boston underperforming compared to his best Giants seasons, and it wasn’t difficult to think that he put himself under pressure enough to live up to that five-year, $94 million deal. But he missed most of 2016 after shoulder surgery and—after hitting a small ton in spring training but struggling as the regular season began—half of this season’s first half with a knee sprain.
There went the optimism, cautious but profound, that the well enough slimmed-down Kung Fu Panda we saw hit the Red Sox camp early this past spring (his offseason work basically meant him losing half a person) meant potential beefed-up performance, at the plate and at third base.
But now comes a certain realistic appraisal period, past and present alike. There were warnings flashing from coast to coast the moment Sandoval signed with the Red Sox. FanGraphs’s Eno Sarris sounded merely the most profound alarm: the Red Sox were just as likely to get the injury-prone version as the one who could hit and play capable defense when he was healthy.
Sarris went on to remind us that large third basemen begin declining around Sandoval’s age at the time of the deal, if not slightly younger. Surely the Red Sox bought his postseason credentials most of all. Particularly those that include the 2012 World Series MVP he earned mostly by hitting three Game One home runs, two off Justin Verlander and the third off a relief pitcher whose best asset often seemed to be his name.
Al Albuquerque probably wished he had made that left toin that night. The Red Sox now have $59.8 million making that left toin from now through the end of 2020.
What neither side seemed to comprehend at the time was that if you removed Sandoval’s postseason performances he’d have been considered only too expendable a Giant no matter how popular he often was in San Francisco. He hadn’t driven in more than 80 runs in any season between 2009-2014, and he only cleared 79+ RBI once in his career before the Red Sox signing. He hadn’t hit more than 20 home runs or for an OPS higher than .800 in any season from 2012-2014.
Sandoval also showed a trend that should have alarmed the Red Sox before they signed him. He usually earned his keep hitting outside pitches, but it’s the kind of hitting that starts fading in players around age 28, which is how old Sandoval was when he signed the big deal. He turned out to be easy enough to pitch to the inside and unable to adjust to it.
But the Red Sox needed a third baseman desperately enough going into 2015. Sandoval turned out not to be it, and the assorted options played in his place didn’t do as much as they hoped to convince them they were safe at third. Designating Sandoval now opens the Red Sox up to a trade market which could have third basemen to spare.
Martin Prado is one, assuming the Marlins go (yet again) into fire sale mode, but he hasn’t played well this season and he’s aging a little rapidly. Mike Moustakas could be another if the Royals fall out of contention fast enough, but he’d be a rental at best unless the Red Sox are willing to take him off the free agency market he’s due to hit this winter.
Josh Harrison looks attractive, especially with his on-base percentage swelling thanks to taking more walks this season, but if the Pirates make him available the Red Sox won’t be the only club hungering for him—especially since he’d be a lockdown through the end of next year.
The probable most likely trade fit for the Red Sox, though, might be Todd Frazier, especially with the rebuilding White Sox making more than one sell-off deal over the last year and a half, one of which (Chris Sale) did the Red Sox big enough. Like Moustakas, though, Frazier is due to hit the open market this winter.
If the Red Sox deal for him, they have to decide if he’s their third baseman of the immediate future and try to pin him for a two-year deal until someone like Rafael Devers is fully major-league ready.
The Red Sox could also decide to stick awhile with Sandoval’s minor league substitutes, Devin Marrero and Tsu-Wei Lin, the latter a Double-A callup, both of whom are “playing out of their minds,” in the words of ESPN’s Scott Lauber, and impressing manager John Farrell.
“Sometimes you don’t want to disrupt a good thing,” said Farrell of the raw duo who’ve run up a combined .408 on-base percentage at the bottom of the Red Sox order. “Clearly . . . what they’ve done at third base has given us a lot of momentum.” But will the Red Sox opt instead for pure experience down the stretch? Either option has to be better than the Sandoval experience proved to be.
Sandoval was believed to think the Giants disrespected him with a low-ball offer in spring 2014, and he probably wasn’t liable to re-sign with them especially if he thought the only reason they sweetened the pot after that season was because the Red Sox opened the vault no questions asked.
And for all his roly poly image of a big smiling bear who could make fans want to bundle him up, Sandoval wasn’t always the most popular Giant, Kung Food Panda frustrating fans as often as the front office with his fluctuations, enough to make an outsider think the only time he was tops in their hearts was his sterling postseasons.
The day before the season re-commenced, the Cubs—struggling and slightly under .500 in a weighty bid to return to the postseason at all, never mind to the World Series—delivered a blockbuster in getting Jose Quintana from the White Sox for four prospects and immediately putting an adrenaline shot into their pitching rotation.
The Red Sox, in first place in the American League East and with a further chance to distance themselves from the Yankees with Michael Pineda of the latter gone for the season and facing a date with Tommy John surgery, just put in adrenaline by subtraction.
It’s a little sad that the Panda experiment didn’t work out, but it’s not unrealistic to think it shouldn’t have been tried in the first place.