Coming into spring training the Red Sox were set. We weren’t sure exactly how good they were (and we still aren’t), but at least we knew they had a lineup all set to go. Now, days before the start of the season, not so much. The news dropped on Thursday that the Sox were not only benching Rusney Castillo for Brock Holt in left field, but that Travis Shaw would start over Pablo Sandoval at third base. Yowsers! The Red Sox have $167.5 million invested in Sandoval and Castillo, and now that money will ride the bench. It will ride the bench in favor of Holt, a backup extraordinaire, and Shaw, a career minor leaguer with two quite good major league months on his resume. This is daring. This is strange. This is surprising. This is dramatic. That’s four, but there are probably other words to describe it. Maybe some of them make more sense. Let’s try to find some better ones.
It’s hard to call a move brilliant before we’ve seen how it all plays out, but that’s part of the problem. These moves might be brilliant, but they won’t be judged on their brilliance alone. They’ll be judged on how well the players who are replacing the big-money stars (if I can use that term loosely) play. That is, the Red Sox, and John Farrell specifically, are hitching their wagons to Holt and Shaw. It’s not that those players are bad, but coming into the season they weren’t thought of as high-ceiling guys. Now sure, they don’t have to play like All-Stars (even if one of them has actually been an All-Star) to make this work, but Holt and Shaw have to not be awful. The projections aren’t in love with either player, but then you wouldn’t expect them to be. For both decisions to prove warranted, the projections are going to have to be wrong. Wrong about the players the team is playing and wrong about they players they’re sitting. Though if the projections are very wrong as they would have to be, it might be fair to call both choices brilliant. So there is that.
The moves are getting lots of press, but if we’re being honest, there’s nothing about starting opening day that guarantees anything beyond a start on opening day. Shaw could go 0-for-the-first-series, make two errors, and find himself back on the bench. The Red Sox could suffer some infield injury and need Holt elsewhere. The very nature of baseball is impermanent, so Castillo and Sandoval should take comfort in that. In any case, there is certainly time for Farrell to change his mind on this, whether opening day has come and gone or not. We probably shouldn’t think that, if the team is willing to sit Sandoval and Castillo, they wouldn’t be willing to sit Shaw and Holt should they struggle.
To win the most baseball games a team should start the best players it has. This seems self-evident. The trick comes when we bring time into it. In other words, the best player today might not be the best tomorrow, and the third best today might be the best next Tuesday. It has been said that Sandoval’s ceiling is probably higher than Shaw’s; that is, that Sandoval stands a better chance of putting together a very good season than does Shaw. By starting Shaw the Red Sox are, so goes this argument, foregoing this potential payoff in return for what could honestly end up looking like very little in return given Shaw’s career track record.
The Red Sox have made huge investments in both Castillo and Sandoval, and by benching them they are both denying them a chance to reverse the course of their careers.
The same could be said for Castillo, who has been bad when he’s played, but if we’re being honest, he’s never really played all that much. That’s partly because of injuries which you can’t blame the team for, but if the Red Sox want to harvest any value from Castillo’s $72 million contract, then they have to play him. He’s not going to get any better nor increase his trade value sitting on his butt during games. This is about where this criticism starts to sting. The Red Sox have made huge investments in both Castillo and Sandoval, and by benching them they are both denying them a chance to reverse the course of their careers, as well as denying themselves a chance to collect on the investments they made. You can make a case for it if Holt and Shaw can play. But even then, that doesn’t preclude that the Red Sox could have received good production from Sandoval and Castillo.
In the end, the Red Sox are going to be left holding the bill anyway. They may as well try to get something for it. Instead they’ve decided the best way to get value for their contracts is for both players to play as little as possible. That’s a damning and potentially damaging pronouncement.
This is roughly a synonym for “daring” and it’s the opposite of the coin that is “questionable.” The Red Sox are going to have to pay Castillo and Sandoval whether they’re any good or not and since they’re clearly not any good (so goes this argument), the team needs to play the players who give them the better chance to win. Teams don’t often do this though. When there are substantial dollars involved in a player’s contract, it often acts as a placeholder for a player in a team’s lineup. Teams don’t want to admit they made a mistake when they sign a player to a big money deal because it reflects badly on them, so the fact that the Red Sox essentially said, screw the public perception, we’re in this to win and we’re going to evaluate our players and then base playing time on those evaluations, regardless of salary … that’s gutsy.
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The Red Sox have managed to turn a rote exercise (spring training) into something dramatic. The team is going to live and die with its evaluations. That’s a good thing, mostly. The problem comes when those evaluations are based on incomplete data or faulty evidence. How good is Travis Shaw? He looked good last season, but we’ve seen plenty of players find success in 250 plate appearances and there’s little in his minor league numbers that makes those 250 PAs look real. What is the value of a .880 OPS in spring training? That said, every year there are players who surprise us. Perhaps Shaw is one of those guys. The Red Sox clearly think so. We’ll have to see if they’re right.
Holt isn’t, though. We know what Holt is because he’s been remarkably consistent over the last two years. He’s very versatile, he has some on-base skills, and he’s a much better first half of the season hitter than second. The final package is a valuable one, one that fits well as the first guy off the bench, but it isn’t one that translates to starting left fielder particularly well. The very skills that make Holt valuable, namely his ability to play multiple positions, aren’t put to use as a starting left fielder. What’s more, Holt really isn’t a anywhere close to the kind of player you’d like to have in left field as he hits for minimal power and doesn’t seem likely to make up for much with his glove.
All of which his to say the Red Sox must really not like what they’re seeing from Rusney Castillo. Which is understandable. Castillo has looked bad. But he also isn’t that far removed from coming over from Cuba, even though it seems like he’s been here a long time. Last season Holt hit .280/.349/.379 and Castillo hit .253/.288/.359. Is the difference between those two slash lines really worth getting virtually nothing out of that $72 million investment?
So in the end, though these two decisions may look similar, they aren’t the same. The Sandoval benching may just be temporary, but it’s still gutsy and it has a chance to look brilliant if Shaw is the player the Red Sox hope he has become. The Castillo benching though, given what we know about Castillo and Holt, given what this does to Castillo’s development and trade value, the fact that it also costs the team their best utility man, and that the upside of playing Holt over Castillo appears likely to be relatively minimal, that’s the one that’s seems questionable.
Maybe it’s not. Maybe the Red Sox have all the answers and all this works out perfectly. Maybe. But from where I sit, here on my couch, I can’t help but describe it as daring. To find out all the perfect words for it though, we’ll just have to wait.
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