Of all the newcomers to debut for the Red Sox this season, Travis Shaw is among the most unheralded. The first baseman doesn’t come with the same prospect pedigree of Blake Swihart or Henry Owens, but after a steady five-year rise up the minor league ladder, Shaw has gotten his first crack at big league competition this season.
He hasn’t received an extended look for Boston just yet, but that could change down the stretch, especially if the club ends up sending Mike Napoli elsewhere in August. The Red Sox have gotten very little in the way of positive performances from their first basemen this season, with Napoli the main culprit behind those struggles.
Overall, the team’s first basemen have combined for roughly league-average production, batting .223/.316/.413 with a wRC+ that sits right at 100. Napoli has been even worse than that, hitting just .211/.308/.393 through 96 contests. Simply put, he hasn’t gotten on base or hit for power with any consistency, and his defense has slipped this year as well.
The one player who has impressed at first base, albeit in just 11 games, is Shaw. His 4-for-4, two-home run performance last Saturday certainly caught the eye. With Napoli’s near-term future anything but certain, and Boston’s roster devoid of any other first basemen signed beyond 2015, Shaw could be in line for some future opportunities with the Red Sox.
What sort of future does Shaw have in Boston? He’s never appeared to be a major part of the club’s plans, though the Red Sox might just have a need for him once Napoli departs. Yet what can we realistically expect from Shaw at the major league level, and can he really contribute enough to make the grade at Fenway?
Drafted out of Kent State in 2011, Shaw didn’t exactly shoot through the minors on his way to Boston. Still, he’s steadily mastered each level during his professional career despite some lengthy struggles in Portland. After reaching Triple-A last summer, Shaw positioned himself to get the call in 2015.
The 25-year-old has never dazzled prospect writers and hasn’t sniffed any top 100 lists during his time in the minors. He didn’t figure into BP’s top 10 Red Sox prospects this preseason, and MLB.com has him ranked 28th overall among Boston farmhands. SoxProspects.com currently has him 14th in the system.
While none of this will impress prospect junkies, that doesn’t mean Shaw is lacking in useful skills. The first baseman has shown decent power, solid on-base ability and hit right-handers fairly well during his minor league career. His performance in Pawtucket this season, where he’s batted .262/.321/.431 with five homers isn’t all that noteworthy, but he did hit .278/.353/.473 with 21 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2014.
What’s held Shaw back in the past is a propensity for strikeouts (though he’s cut his strikeout rate down from 22.0% to 16.8% in Pawtucket this season) and struggles against left-handed pitching. A year ago in Triple-A, Shaw batted just .189/.253/.256 versus southpaws. He did excel against righties, finishing with a .291/.348/.502 mark in 245 plate appearances.
From this vantage point, Shaw looks more like a platoon player than anything else. It’s hard to envision him suddenly improving against lefties at the MLB level, and those strikeout issues could easily return.
PECOTA isn’t optimistic about Shaw’s chances, forecasting a .235/.319/.396 line for the rest of the season, which demonstrates the biggest problem. Although he’s made good strides down in the minors, Shaw doesn’t have the look of a full-time major leaguer at this point, and he’s an even worse fit for a team like Boston.
Shaw shares a dilemma with plenty of past Red Sox prospects in that he’ll need time to take his lumps against big league pitching—time that Boston likely doesn’t have. When contention is a constant expectation (if not reality), the Red Sox can’t afford to stick with struggling youngsters for very long.
Injuries can always create an opportunity, and if Shaw proves capable of hitting righties down the stretch in 2015, a platoon/bench-bat role is possible.
The futures of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval also cloud Shaw’s future. One of them looks destined to wear a first basemen’s mitt next season. Barring injury, Shaw won’t be taking playing time away from either. And down in Double-A, the club’s second-round pick in 2014, Sam Travis, is impressing and could reach Fenway late next season if he continues to hit. Being four years younger, Travis has the higher ceiling at this point.
Shaw could still have a role with the Red Sox, both this year and next. Injuries can always create an opportunity, and if he proves capable of hitting righties down the stretch in 2015, a platoon/bench-bat role is possible.
However, any visions of Shaw turning into a full-time player at first base with the Red Sox are likely farfetched. He’ll get a chance somewhere and could carve out a fine career if he’s able to make adjustments in the same manner he did in the minors. With Travis knocking on the door and the Red Sox under pressure to start winning, that opportunity is unlikely to come in Boston.
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