Let’s start with declarative sentences. Rafael Devers is the top prospect in the Red Sox system. He 20 years old (he won’t be 21 until late October). He’s currently hitting .300/.365/.514 with seven homers in Double-A. He plays third base and does so at an adequate level.
Now we’ll get into a few slightly less declarative statements. The Red Sox have, depending on how you view it, one of the worst situations at third base in baseball this season. The exact level of awfulness is hard to pin down thanks to Pablo Sandoval. His batting line is bad (.213/.269/.377) and he’s only played in 17 of the team’s 46 games so far. He has made four errors in those 17 games and hasn’t shown much in the way of range, though his improved conditioning has made him at least look like he could be a major league third baseman, in theory. Considering he makes $17.6 million this year, and $18.6 million in both 2018 and 2019, the Red Sox are stuck with him. And when I say “stuck with him” I mean stuck with his salary; they’ll pay it even if they cut him.
Beyond Sandoval the Red Sox have employed Deven Marrero at third, who, home run last night not withstanding, isn’t a major league-caliber hitter. Only 40 games into the season, the Red Sox have used three other players at the position, for a total of five. All have been bad, though the levels of badness have varied depending on what you happen to be measuring at the time.
The point is though that the Red Sox have a vacancy at third base, as they have since before signing Sandoval three years ago. They also have their best prospect, a third baseman, raking in the minors. So the obvious solution is to bring up said prospect, wipe your hands, and call it a day. Except no.
There are several problems with this plan, starting with Sandoval himself. At age 30, with his history as an above-average player, and with his salary, Sandoval deserves another chance to be the starting third baseman. He may not be successful in his venture, but there are reasons to think he might be. His batted ball data looks shockingly good, way out of line with his lousy slash line. If he keeps hitting the ball as he did when he was healthy, he’ll have more success. As for his defense, many of the problems he presented were based on his throwing. That’s never been a particular problem before and is pretty easily attributed to rust. That’s not to dismiss the errors outright, but to say that there’s a fair chance this was a cluster of mistakes in what would be a larger sample of decency, as opposed to a warning sign of more bad defense to come.
Then there’s his contract, which essentially means the Red Sox are wedded to him for three more seasons. If Devers were 23 or 24 and destroying in Triple-A, that might be something you apologize to Sandoval for as you push him out the back door, but Devers is 20 and in Double-A. He might be ready for the majors, but there’s a more than reasonable chance that he isn’t. Sandoval’s contract is Sandoval’s contract. It’s not going anywhere, nobody is going to take it on, and unless the Red Sox are presented with a sure thing in Devers or someone else, there’s no sense in ridding themselves of someone in Sandoval who could solve their third base problem, even temporarily.
There’s another issue with Sandoval’s contract. Since the Red Sox are going to be paying him whether he’s on the roster or not, it makes it difficult to go out on the trade market and acquire anyone. There are some third basemen who aren’t making much money and are very good, but the Orioles aren’t likely to deal Manny Machado to the Red Sox ever, and especially not as long as they’re looking down at Boston in the standings. Similarly the Blue Jays, even if they decide to blow it up and deal Josh Donaldson, aren’t likely to want to help the Red Sox raise another World Series banner.
Since Sandoval will be paid by the Red Sox, and since the Red Sox don’t have anyone else who can stand in and provide certainty – defined as league-average production at the position – they’re better off sticking with Sandoval. It’s hardly an ideal situation, but it’s the one Dave Dombrowski and company have set themselves up for by depending on a player coming off a lost season that followed a season featuring utter offensive and defensive ineptitude. The Red Sox have hitched their horse to Sandoval’s wagon, for better or worse.
Okay, Matt, you might say, but what about Devers? If they’re going to pay Sandoval, fine, they’ve made that bed and can’t go back, but just bring Devers up and the problem is fixed. Well, maybe and no. Devers might be able to hit major league pitching, maybe. But we don’t know that. Dombrowski has a history of bringing hitters up from Double-A and sometimes they can handle it, like Andrew Benintendi, and sometimes they can’t, like Yoan Moncada, or Nick Castellanos. There’s a danger to it, as it’s possible to do serious damage to the psyche of prospect who might not be ready to face major league pitching.
Devers might be able to handle it, but he might not, and looking where the Red Sox are with respect to third base, they need him to be able to handle it when he does get the call. That might be later this year, after Sandoval gets another shot to show he can be some smaller version of the guy the Red Sox gave $90 million to, or it might be next season, or even the one beyond that (hard to see them waiting that long though).
In the end, the Red Sox have what appears to be a gem on their hands with Devers, and that gem looks like it’ll fit perfectly into the one spot in the Red Sox lineup that has plagued them for years. Maybe Devers can be the short-term solution. Maybe Sandoval can. Maybe they need to explore the trade market for short term solutions. The one declarative sentence we can make is this: Rafael Devers is the future. What we don’t know is when that future begins. Sandoval is set to come back from the DL sometime in about a week. If you’re looking for declarative sentences on this topic, that’ll be your first clue.
Photo by Jonathan Dyer – USA TODAY Sports