Another error from another non-third baseman playing third base for the Red Sox yesterday. Boston’s problem at third base keeps getting worse, or maybe more accurately, it’s not getting better. It’s an incurable illness, it’s fighting with an arm tied behind your back, it’s, in it’s most literal form, playing baseball with eight guys on the field instead of nine. I wrote about this last week, how the Red Sox haven’t had a good third baseman since they boosted Mike Lowell from the Marlins, how despite countless millions expended and player after player attempted, the Red Sox still have next to nothing at third base. And now, with starter Pablo Sandoval on the DL in perhaps the most predictable of DL moves of the young season to date, the Red Sox have less than next to nothing. They have nothing.
With Sandoval on the DL and jack of all trades, master of none Brock Holt still experiencing symptoms of vertigo, Rule 5 draft pick Rutledge was at third base yesterday. He was starting because utility infielder Marco Hernandez has a fielding percentage that starts with an eight. *Barely* starts with an eight. But Hernandez isn’t a third baseman. He’s a shortstop with some time spent at second base. Rutledge played a bit of third too, and is a fine fill-in for a few innings, but he’s not a third baseman either. In six seasons in the majors he’s had 50 chances at third base. Compare that to over 1,000 combined at shortstop and second. He’s in Hernandez’s boat. He’s a player being asked to do something he’s not capable of doing. There is a saying you’ve likely heard. Put players in position to succeed. So far, at third base, the Red Sox have done the opposite. They have put their players in position to fail.
So don’t be tempted to blame Hernandez, or for that matter, Rutledge, whose error yesterday shows only a glimpse of what is in store for the Red Sox should he continue at the position. They are merely doing what was asked of them. No, it’s not their fault. It’s the Red Sox fault.
Of course this all comes back to the front office. It goes deeper than Dave Dombrowski too. The Red Sox haven’t had a competent regular third baseman for more than a season in almost a decade now, so the fault for that goes well beyond the team president who took over just over a season ago. This is on Ben Cherington, and even Theo Epstein before him. But, man, Dave Dombrowski did his part here as well and since he’s the one in charge now, it bears looking at what he’s done.
Just this past off-season Dombrowski dealt 2016 starting third baseman Travis Shaw to the Brewers along with Mauricio Dubon (and Josh Pennington) for reliever Tyler Thornburg. Thornburg is injured and hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Red Sox. Shaw is hitting .263/.302/.545. Then Dombrowski traded Yoan Moncada (along with others) for Chris Sale. Moncada had moved to third base while in the Boston system, but the White Sox have since moved him back to his preferred position of second base. Still, for the Red Sox, Moncada represented depth at third. So did Shaw, for that matter.
The organization has to have a plan. Is the plan to start Pablo Sandoval at third base? Okay, that makes sense given the financial obligations and the player’s history, but who can back him up if he struggles or gets hurt?
The issue isn’t should the Red Sox have traded for Chris Sale or not. Who could make that argument and not look like a jackass? The point here is less specific, more abstract. The organization has to have a plan. Is the plan to start Pablo Sandoval at third base? Okay, that makes sense given the financial obligations and the player’s history, but who can back him up if he struggles or gets hurt? This is a guy who just missed almost an entire season and before that wasn’t hitting enough or fielding well enough to hold down a major league job. There has to be a backup plan. Travis Shaw fits that mold perfectly, but he was traded.
That’s not to say Travis Shaw shouldn’t have been traded. Of course you can trade Shaw (though I didn’t care for it then and that deal looks like crap now), but if you do you have to get someone back who can fill that same role for the organization, if not in that deal, then in the next, because without Shaw, that depth does not exist in the Red Sox organization. There isn’t anyone in Triple-A who can step in and not hurt the major league team without Shaw.
Instead, Dombrowski went further in dealing Moncada. Again, this isn’t to say you can’t trade Moncada. You can! You just have to be sure the organization can handle his loss. You have to cover for whatever hole he leaves behind. The Red Sox and Dombrowski didn’t do it, Sandoval predictably got hurt, and now we have the current predicament.
I said earlier that this wasn’t all on Dombrowski, that it was in some part on Cherington as well. Now, a few paragraphs later, I’m rethinking my position on that. Cherington left the organization with Sandoval, Shaw (drafted under Epstein, but not traded by Cherington), and Moncada. That’s not perfect, but it’s something. It’s capable of being improved on, but there is some competent depth at the position. After dealing both Shaw and Moncada and not replacing them with anyone, there is no depth at the position. So maybe this is all on Dombrowski.
To me it comes back to a few things. Not caring enough about organizational depth is one, but over-valuing relievers is another. Of all the moves that Dombrowski has made, perhaps his most polarizing, and from a statistical standpoint most damaging, have been his deals for relievers. He has made three big deals specifically for relievers. Those deals have cost the Red Sox Dubon, Shaw, Pennington, Wade Miley, Logan Allen, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asuaje, and Manny Margot. That’s a whole lot of talent (and even more if you look at what Miley is doing this season in Baltimore), and so far the Red Sox have received one season of good (not great) relief pitching from Kimbrel. That’s it. It’s been stated time and again that relievers are maybe the most volatile of players, and making big deals for relievers is a time-tested way to ruin your franchise. That’s not to say it never works. The Indians are probably fine with the Andrew Miller deal, for example, even almost a year later. But deals like Miller’s are the exception to the rule. Far more common are deals like the Thornburg deal. It’s possible that Thornburg could return and be amazing, but even if he does, it’s highly unlikely he’ll approach the value the Red Sox sent off to get him. Also, even if he does, look what the deal did to Boston’s depth at third base. Look at who they’re running out there every day. Thornburg better be good.
Of all those now gone players, only Shaw is a full time third baseman, but that’s less the point. Sure, Shaw would be incredibly useful to the Red Sox right now, far more so than Thornburg, but imagine having Margot, or Asuaje, or even Allen. Those guys could be traded to bring in someone so the Red Sox don’t have to keep running Rutledge or Hernandez, or if he gets better, Holt, out to positions they shouldn’t be playing. Instead of getting the biggest shiniest name on the market, perhaps the organization should put some stock in depth. It’s what got them through last season when Sandoval was lost early to season-ending surgery. It’s what allowed the organization to survive the loss of starting catcher Christian Vazquez last season. It’s also what they lacked in left field in 2016, causing them to move Blake Swihart left where he got hurt and was lost for the year.
Depth is important. Injuries happen. Starters don’t always stay on the field. You have to be able to cover for them without hurting yourself badly in the process. That’s the Red Sox biggest problem at third base. It’s not that their starter is hurt and can’t play. It’s that they have nobody else to step in for him. Like all depth-related issues, it was a little problem, but now it’s a big one.
Photo by John E. Sokolowski – USA TODAY Sports