Pablo Sandoval has had a fantastic career. At the age of 29 he’s won multiple World Series and has even been the MVP of one of them. As a result of all that, he signed a $95 million contract to be the starting third baseman for the Boston Red Sox for five seasons. There were balloons and panda hats and broad smiles from here to there after the signing. Then last year happened. Sandoval’s first season in Boston went about as badly as it could have on the field.
By WARP, Sandoval was worth -1.38 wins in 2015, making him the seventh-worst player in all of baseball by that metric. Part of that was him hitting badly, and that could have been tolerated if not condoned in the first season of a five-year deal. Players have bad seasons at the plate sometimes, and especially so following signing big contracts, but most damning was that his ability to play third base competently disappeared. He had little ability to move around in the field and for the first time looked like he couldn’t handle the position.
Yesterday, Ben Carsley looked at dealing Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo, two players who, as he put it, amount to $129 million in dead money. The problem is since both players are owed a ton of cash and as neither is, at this point, any good at baseball, they’re not desirable to other teams either, even should the Red Sox pay most or all of their salaries. Castillo has been sent to Triple-A so presumably he should get at-bats. Maybe he figures it out and turns his obvious physical tools into on-the-field success. I won’t be holding my breath, but you never know. Sandoval is a different and, if you’ll forgive me, bigger problem. If he’s not going to play third base there’s no real place for him to play (he’s not going to Triple-A), and if he’s not going to start and he’s not good enough to hit or play defense, he’s not going to get a chance to improve, let alone to prove he’s improved.
Since both Castillo and Sandoval are owed a ton of cash and as neither is, at this point, any good at baseball, they’re not desirable to other teams either, even should the Red Sox pay most or all of their salaries.
However, it’s possible to imagine a player with Sandoval’s past becoming a decent player again. In fact, I’d bet on Sandoval to post more value in the future than Castillo simply because Sandoval has actually done it before. What’s more, he’s just 29 years old, so age isn’t a problem for him. At least not yet.
There’s an elephant in the room though, and it’s Sandoval’s weight. The Red Sox reportedly don’t approve of his size and shape, fearing it to be one of the main culprits of his diminished on-field capacity. Anecdotally it looks that way, but I don’t know so it’s not fair for me to comment. What I can say though is that players in similar positions as Sandoval have turned their careers around in the past. Red Sox fans will remember John Lackey, the starting pitcher who, after signing in Boston, stunk. Of course he stunk because the inside of his arm was shredded, and after missing a season for Tommy John surgery he returned and was fantastic, helping the team to their third World Series win in a decade. After Lackey’s second season in Boston though, not many thought he would ever see a major-league mound again, let alone be a major cog in a World Series winning rotation.
Lackey’s problem wasn’t weight, it was injury, but there was something else that makes him similar to Sandoval: attitude. Sandoval has publicly displayed a good attitude, saying the right things about his situation, but behind the scenes he’s reportedly strongly resisted losing weight. Lackey was difficult in a different way but neither endeared themselves to the fans through their actions. But by the end of his Red Sox contract Lackey was, if not a fan favorite, then at least a player who the fans actively liked. That same transformation isn’t impossible for Sandoval to make either. Like with Lackey though, it’ll take a tremendous amount of work, both on the field as well as off.
Maybe a more direct example is Mo Vaughn, who signed with the Angels after a contract dispute with the Red Sox. Boston had wanted to include a weight clause in his contract as well as some other things he didn’t like and Vaughn, having spent the last five or so seasons being offended by the Red Sox front office, decided enough was enough. The moral here is a bit different though, because after two uninspired seasons in Anaheim, Vaughn was traded to the New York Mets. In the end neither locale worked well for the mercurial star and he was essentially done as a good player after his age-29 season in 1999, though he kept playing for parts of three more seasons. (Incidentally, the year after that, Vaughn hit .272/.365/.498, and with bad defense at first base, that was worth 0.4 WARP. That’s because the average hitter in 2000 hit .270/.345/.437.)
Listen to David Ortiz talk about what he has to do to stay in shape now that he’s 40. It’s a huge reason he’s retiring after this season.
While Lackey shows that sometimes players do return to their former glory, Vaughn stands as more of a cautionary tale. The ex-Sox star suffered through injuries and weight-related issues later in his career, all the while giving off the public perception that he was too proud to do much about them. The thing is, while a 25-year-old player can play certain positions overweight and excel at them, things catch up to you pretty quickly as you hit 30. Vaughn found that out. I suspect Sandoval is learning it now too.
Listen to David Ortiz talk about what he has to do to stay in shape now that he’s 40. It’s a huge reason he’s retiring after this season. It’s not that he can’t play anymore, it’s that, after all he’s accomplished, he’s not willing to do what it takes to stay ready to contribute at his extremely high level anymore. After a while it just becomes too hard and the calculus no longer works.
Sandoval may yet be traded or even released, but whether he realizes it or not, there’s no reason to expect things to be different in another city. If Pablo Sandoval can’t play in Boston because of his size and the resulting lack of mobility, there’s no reason to think he can play in Detroit or San Diego or anywhere else. The field is the same, the player is the same, and the results will be the same. If Sandoval were to take his conditioning more seriously and get down to a reasonable weight it seems likely he would at least be able to field his position. It’s harder to say whether or not his hitting ability would return. The chances of that happening though, well… I was going to say they aren’t great, but actually I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. Oh, well, one guy. Pablo Sandoval is the only one who can turn his career around.
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