Is Pablo Sandoval on his way out of Boston in just the second season of his five-year, $95 million contract with the Red Sox? Speculation that Sandoval's time with the team is coming to an end ran rampant on Wednesday, when the Red Sox, who benched Sandoval in favor of Travis Shaw to start the season, placed the veteran third baseman on the disabled list with a left shoulder strain that the team didn’t bother to use an MRI to diagnose.
Sandoval—who was awful in his first season with Boston last year, hitting .245/.292/.366 (76 OPS+) and falling nearly a full win below replacement level—woke up Wednesday morning with “limited mobility” in his left shoulder, a condition confirmed by the Red Sox' training staff. With another player, the team might have waited a day or two to see if the shoulder loosened up or sent him for an MRI to determine the severity of the injury. With Sandoval, the Red Sox leapt at the opportunity to remove him from their active roster, swapping him out for infielder Josh Rutledge before that evening’s first pitch. Manager John Farrell admitted as much, telling the media, “If a breather gives him a chance to maybe step away from the scrutiny that he’s under, we’ll make every effort to have that take place.”
Sandoval was signed under Boston’s previous general manager, Ben Cherington, in November 2014, and it’s clear that the new administration, led by Dave Dombrowski, sees him as a sunk cost. Even before his disastrous 2015 season, Sandoval was in a steady decline at the plate, as illustrated by his rate stats from his final four years with the Giants:
A player with a notoriously poor physique, Sandoval was also lousy in the field last year, and his 30th birthday this August is rapidly approaching. Shaw, meanwhile, has contributed the sort of performance on both sides of the ball that Boston was hoping to get from Sandoval, and he's done it for the league minimum. Entering Thursday’s action, Shaw has hit .272/.333/.480 (117 OPS+) in 276 major league plate appearances. If he can continue to do that, the Red Sox would effectively break even by simply releasing Sandoval, eating his contract and letting Shaw—who won’t be arbitration eligible until 2019, the last guaranteed year of Sandoval’s deal—provide the performance they were hoping to get from their third baseman.
What remains to be seen is whether or not Sandoval can be redeemed in a Red Sox uniform. An injury to Shaw, first baseman Hanley Ramirez (who is off to a good start at his new position) or 40-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz could change things significantly. Sandoval does have experience at first base, having made 55 starts there in the major leagues, though the most recent was in 2012, and it’s certainly appealing to have a former All-Star to plug into any one of those positions should they be vacated by injury. Given the defensive flexibility of super utility man Brock Holt, however, Sandoval may not even be the team's first choice to fill one of those positions, as Boston may instead prefer to use a combination of Holt (currently the team’s primary leftfielder) and reserve outfielders Rusney Castillo and Chris Young to stem the tide.
If Sandoval isn’t even the primary backup option at either infield corner, it’s clear that his value to the Red Sox has all but evaporated. Still, he was a three-win player in 2014 and has yet to turn 30. You would think he could still hold down a starting job for another team if he can get his swing and body back into reasonable playing shape. Unfortunately, third base is a fairly strong position throughout the majors, and a move to first base would only raise the requirements for his declining bat.
Tracing the path of the decline in the above table but throwing out his awful 2015 performance, Sandoval could be something close to a league-average hitter in this, his age-29 season. Add competent play at third base, and you’re talking about a league-average player, or someone worth roughly two WAR over a full season. Unfortunately, there’s not much demand for a player like that at third base. Consider the free agency of third baseman David Freese, who posted a 106 OPS+ and averaged 1.9 bWAR over his last two seasons with the Angels. Freese didn’t sign with the Pirates until March 11, and even then, he had to settle for a job with a team that only wanted him as a stop-gap. The Pirates gave Freese a one-year deal worth $3 million; Sandoval still has four years and $75 million left on his contract (minus the pro-rated portion of his $17 million salary for the the current season).
The Red Sox’s best option may be to elongate Sandoval’s current disabled list stay in the hopes that an injury on another team might increase interest in him. For example: The Padres, who have shown interest in Sandoval since he reached free agency, recently lost third baseman Yangervis Solarte (a 2.2 bWAR player last year) to a hamstring injury. That injury isn’t severe enough to motivate the acquisition of Sandoval, as Solarte is also expected back by the end of the month, but needs can emerge as the season progresses.
Whatever Sandoval’s eventual destination may be, it seems clear that the Red Sox would have to eat the majority of his contract in order to remove him from their roster. One option there would be a swap of bad contracts—taking on another team’s expensive mistake in exchange for Sandoval. Again, the Padres spring to mind, as Matt Kemp is owed $86 million over the next four years and would benefit from a move to the AL, where he could replace Ortiz at designated hitter next season. A brutal outfielder in the wake of career threatening leg injuries, Kemp was worth just 0.6 bWAR in his age-30 season last year despite a respectable 111 OPS+ and is off to a decent start at the plate this season. Sandoval could play first base in San Diego, pushing Wil Myers into Kemp’s vacated spot in rightfield, and the Padres could send just enough money to Boston along with Kemp to make the two teams break even.
That scenario seems far more likely than one in which the Red Sox reacquire the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury (owed $110.7 million over the next five years) from the Yankees or Carl Crawford (owed $41.75 million for the next two years) from the Dodgers. The Nationals, who owe Jayson Werth $42 million for this season and next, would also appear to have no use for Sandoval, as they would surely rather take their chances on Ryan Zimmerman for $62 million over the next four years. As for some of the game’s other notoriously awful contracts, Ryan Howard and CC Sabathia are mercifully in their walk years, and Alex Rodriguez has miraculously redeemed himself in New York and has said he will retire when his contract expires at the end of next season, making all three better investments than Sandoval for what remains on their contracts.
For now, the Red Sox have bought themselves at least three weeks (the 15-day DL stay plus a minor league rehab assignment) to continue to evaluate Shaw and decide what to do with Sandoval. The Red Sox could also decide to shift Sandoval to the 60-day disabled list, opening up his spot on the 40-man roster and effectively disappearing him for the season, though such injury shenanigans could very well result in the filing of a grievance on Sandoval’s part. Whatever the outcome may be, it seems highly unlikely that Sandoval is going to be a meaningful contributor to the 2016 Red Sox, and the two parties could part ways before the season’s end.